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Friday, October 9, 2015

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Google maps: keeping an eye on Israel

Tags: Columnists
Mark Mietkiewicz

“To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Google’s mission statement sounds benign enough, and anyone familiar with its products – YouTube, Picasa, Drive, Google+, Blogger, and of course its various search engines – knows that Goole really does practice what it preaches.

But when a country finds itself in a region where it wants to shield information from its neighbours, Israel has not always seen eye to eye with Google’s mission. And that has been particularly true when that means releasing sensitive maps and images for all to see.

Today a look at how concerns over Google maps and Israel have evolved, and once fuzzy shots of the country have transformed into crisp aerial views. 

Google provides two map display products, both free. Google Maps is web-based – type in an address or city or landmark, and you are immediately presented with a map of the region. Click on a tab, and you are presented with a satellite perspective that you can zoom in on to allow remarkable clarity. Google Earth is similar but offers more powerful tools displayed on a virtual 3D globe that you can tilt and rotate.

So what kind of risk do they pose, if any? In 1997, well before these Google products were available, the U.S. Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act, which in part places a “Prohibition on [the] collection and release of detailed satellite imagery relating to Israel.”

A few years later, Jerusalem-based blogger Charles Levinson reproduced an aerial shot of the Dimona nuclear reactor freely available via Google. He then quoted Yediot Achronot’s Alex Fishman. “The State of Israel, with its sensitive installations, has lost another scarf veiling its charms. If up until now we were undressed only by the superpower satellites, then now, with the improvement in the quality of satellite images from Google Earth, Israel’s most secret spots are becoming visible not only to any ephemeral intelligence organization, but to any Internet surfer.”

Following the intensification of Qassam rocket attacks on Israel in late 2007, the Guardian’s Clancy Chassay accompanied Palestinian fighters as they fired a rocket into southern Israel. The group’s commander in Gaza, Khaled Jaabari, told Chassay, “We obtain the details from Google Earth and check them against our maps of the city centre and sensitive areas.” Jaabari then showed Chassay how he used an aerial image of Sderot to search for targets. Added British military spokesperson Major Charlie Burbridge, “There is a constant threat of reconnaissance missions to access our bases and using these images is just another method of how this is conducted.”

Not everyone is concerned about the availability of this information. In Security & Secrets at Google, David Shamah wrote that, “one would also imagine that terrorists interested in such high-resolution images of Israel’s strategic sites would have already procured a copy of these detailed, ‘top-secret’ images long before the less-sophisticated versions of them made it to Google Earth.”

Prof. Gerald Steinberg of Bar Ilan University helped draft the agreement with the United States to limit satellite resolution imagery. Even he does not feel enhanced images endanger Israel’s security. “Israel has had 10 years to prepare for this. They are not real-time pictures, and they were not taken yesterday. I don’t think this is a major change in security.”

Want to try your hand looking for a sensitive military installation or two? How about a chemical weapons site or a Trident submarine base or the site of Muammar Gadhafi’s last battle? No problem. An entire cottage industry has sprung up of aficionados who spend hours poring of Google maps looking for military instillations that perhaps the host countries wish would slip under the radar. A search for the words “Israel” and “Israeli” reveals hundreds of posts about images ranging from the path of the Israeli-West Bank barrier to the site where Israeli soldiers were abducted in 2000 to IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv.

Google and other satellite image providers have agreements with governments and their militaries to blur or blot sensitive locations, many of which can be found at the Wikipedia entry “Satellite map images with missing or unclear data.” While it isn’t a surprise that the list includes the NATO Air Base in Geilenkirchen, Germany, who would have thought that Paleis Noordeinde and Royal Stables, work palace of the Dutch Queen, would also merit a blur? The list does not currently include any sites in Israel. 

With the inexorable pace of technology, what was once a panic about the possible revelation of state secrets now seems to have faded into the background, even in Israel.

Next time: from eyes in the sky to feet (or at least wheels) on the ground. How Google Street View came to Israel – and has poked its cameras into some of the country’s most secure chambers – now with the blessing of the country.


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