Google is blurring satellite imagery of Israel

Google's most recent satellite imagery of places in Israel, like Ben Gurion airport, is less clear than previous images it used earlier this year (Google Earth)

MEE Staff

Middle East Eye  / October 3, 2022

Despite the expiration of a US law paving the way for clearer satellite images of Israel, Google is reverting back to lower-quality, blurry images across the country.

Google has started to display lower-resolution satellite imagery in some parts of Israel, removing previously shown higher-quality images without giving a reason for doing so.

US commercial imagery of Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories was restricted in 1997 after US Congress passed the Kyl-Bingaman Amendment, which barred the resolution of satellite imagery of the area to two metres per pixel under the guise of protecting Israel’s national security.

This means that buildings and streets showed up blurry and were difficult to identify.

The legislation’s ban expired two years ago and since then Google had updated its imagery of Israel with higher quality resolutions – except in Gaza and parts of the West Bank where Google continued to display low-quality imagery.

Now, for an unknown reason, Google has again begun displaying lower-quality imagery across swathes of Israel. Haaretz first reported that Google had updated its maps of Israel with pixelated images.

Google did not respond to Middle East Eye’s request for comment by the time of publication.

Places like Ben Gurion Airport, the main international airport of Israel, now appear blurry on Google Maps and Google Earth, compared to earlier this year.

However, in other parts of Israel, like the port in Haifa, Google kept its high-resolution imagery up while other parts have not been updated for years, even after the expiration of the Kyl-Bingaman Amendment.

Last year, during Israel’s bombardment of Gaza in May, conflict researchers reported issues with Google not updating its maps services of the besieged Strip despite having offered better quality images throughout Israel. The lack of clear images made it difficult to determine which buildings had been bombed as a result of Israeli air strikes. To this day, Google has not updated its satellite imagery of Gaza.

In many of the world’s most secretive places, Google’s two services – Google Maps and Google Earth – are able to provide clear images of the area. For example, images of the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, are detailed enough to see people walking on the streets.

Google at the time told MEE that it considers “opportunities to refresh our satellite imagery as higher resolution imagery becomes available” but that it had “no plans to share” at the time.

Still, viewers are able to look at the higher-resolution imagery of Israel that was taken down by downloading the Google Earth application, and the Survey of Israel’s official website itself has higher-quality satellite images available.

The new and lower-quality imagery comes a year after Google announced a $1.2bn contract with Israel, in which it would provide cloud services to the Israeli government.

Hundreds of employees at the tech giant have come out in protest of the contract, raising concerns they would be helping facilitate and advance what they call Israeli apartheid. Training materials leaked to the

Intercept show the project will see Google provide advanced artificial intelligence and machine-learning capabilities to the Israeli government.

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 Israel-Palestine: Google says it has ‘no plans’ to update blurry maps of Gaza’

 Umar Farooq

 Middle East Eye  /  May 21, 2021

Google Maps continues to show low-resolution satellite imagery of the Gaza Strip, a year after US restrictions were lifted, potentially hindering the work of conflict researchers

Google has said it has no plans to update low-resolution imagery of Israel, the occupied Palestinian territories and the besieged Gaza Strip, despite a US law that banned the use of high-quality images being lifted last year.

Prior to agreeing to a ceasefire early on Friday, Israel bombed Gaza for 11 days, killing at least 248 Palestinians, including 66 children, 39 women and 17 elderly men.

The air strikes damaged schools, power lines, water, sanitation and sewage systems for hundreds of thousands of people in a territory that has been under blockade by Israel and Egypt for more than a decade.

Conflict researchers told Middle East Eye it would be difficult to understand the true damage caused by Israeli air strikes due to many open source mapping tools – including Google, Apple, and Bing – which have failed to update their maps with high-resolution imagery.

At present, satellite imagery for Gaza is at a resolution of two metres per pixel, meaning buildings and streets show up blurry and are difficult to identify.

Aric Toler, who leads training and research efforts for the investigative journalism website Bellingcat, said that in order to verify or analyze a photo or video that shows a destroyed building in Gaza on Google Maps, he would “have to rely on either getting really lucky with the angle / content of a blurry satellite image” or find another way altogether.

“It’s very hard to make out objects with the existing imagery on free mapping services,” he told MEE.

Other areas around the world, including the secretive North Korean capital Pyongyang, are detailed enough to see people walking on the streets.

Google said that it considers “opportunities to refresh our satellite imagery as higher resolution imagery becomes available”, but that it has “no plans to share at this time”.

Meanwhile, Apple told BBC that it was working to update its maps soon to a higher resolution. Microsoft, the parent company of Bing, appears to be displaying lower-resolution imagery as well. Microsoft did not respond to MEE’s request for comment.

Not surprising

The original reasoning behind the low-resolution satellite imagery of Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories comes from a 1997 amendment to the US national defence authorisation act.

The Kyl-Bingaman Amendment restricted the use of satellite imagery in Israel and Gaza to two metres per pixel, citing security concerns at the time. However, last year the amendment was revised to allow for greater resolution of the area.

According to Google, “satellite imagery in Google Maps and Earth is built from a broad range of providers, including public, government, commercial and private sector sources”.

Yet one of those companies, Maxar Technologies – which is shown as a source of its map data for Gaza as of 2021 – offers much higher resolution images than Google utilizes.

High-resolution satellite imagery is an important tool for researchers, investigative journalists, and human rights groups to track what is taking place during a conflict.

Such imagery has been used to show the destruction of more than 200 Rohingya villages by the Myanmar military in 2017, as well as to report on a network of “re-education” centres set up for the Uyghurs across the Xinjiang region in China, in addition to the destruction of thousands of mosques there.

Satellite imagery has also been used to expose large prison camps in North Korea that the government had denied existed.

Still, when it comes to the issue of Israeli air strikes on the Gaza Strip, researchers have had to rely on paid satellite imagery, such as Maxar, or find other ways of confirming what buildings or areas were bombed.

Marwa Fatafta, a policy analyst at the Palestinian policy network Al-Shabaka, said the decision was not surprising, considering that Google is “lending its cloud service to the Israeli government & their military apparatus”.

Earlier this year, Google, alongside Amazon Web Services, was awarded a $1.2bn offer to provide cloud services to Israeli government agencies.

The tech giant has also been accused of violating international law by recognizing illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, according to the Arab Center for Social Media Advancement, 7amleh. 

Umar Farooq is a journalist based in Washington DC