Earth to Globes

All Points Blog links to an article by Globes, an Israeli business news site, that purports to explain why the satellite imagery available in Google Earth is of relatively low resolution in Israel. The article gets some things right, but manages to miss the point spectacularly elsewhere. It’s worth checking paragraph by paragraph.

Since Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) began offering satellite photographs of locations everywhere in the world in April 2005, countries have feared that high-resolution photographs of sensitive sites would expose their weak points to terrorists.

Israeli sources told “Globes” that Israel was very sensitive to exposure of strategic locations in satellite photographs. However, legal restrictions in the US and understandings between Israel and other countries are reducing Israel’s vulnerability to enlarged photos of locations liable to become targets of mega-terrorism.

All correct, as far as I know.

An independent survey of the Google Earth site for satellite photographs shows that the search engine limits the resolution for available photos of Israel sites, whether strategic or civilian.

Here we go again: Earth or Maps? As the rest of the article makes clear, the author played with Maps, not Earth, to research this article. And Google Earth/Maps doesn’t work that way: There is no universal Google database of high-resolution imagery, from which images are blurred on purpose depending on which countries enjoy Google’s favour. The company buys data that is available publicly, and if it has it, will display it — that’s what Google says. Reporting that Google purposely limits the resolution over Israel is conspiracy theorising, and I would demand far more evidence than a mere assertion before that becomes plausible.

This restriction does not exist for photographs of sites in other countries.

Oh? All of Lebanon is at the same relatively low resolution, including Beirut. Damascus is at the same resolution, as is all of Syria save some bits of the border with Iraq. All of Jordan, save Amman, is at that resolution. All of Egypt, save Cairo. Google isn’t “restricting” anything. The real problem is that almost all countries in the Middle East besides Iraq are very underrespresented when it comes to high-resolution data in Google Earth’s image database.

Google offers satellite photos of eight locations in Israel: Jerusalem (the most popular), Tel Aviv, the Dead Sea, Masada, the Dimona Nuclear Research Center (DNRC), Sdot Micha (listed as a nuclear weapons base), Lake Kinneret, and the Mizpe Ramon erosion crater.

I have no idea what this paragraph is supposed to mean. I can only suppose that somebody showed the author, Ran Dagoni, those locations in Maps, and that he drew all the wrong inferences. Those regions are in fact displayed at the same resolution as the rest of Israel in Maps/Earth.

All of Google’s photos have a tool enabling users to increase photo resolution and examine the site from close up. In photos of Israeli locations, however, the resolution can be increased only up to a given level, at which point an announcement appears: “We are sorry, but we have no photographs at this resolution for this region.” Other countries do not have this privilege.

Google’s photo database, which is revised every 18 months, comes from various sources, and the level of resolution changes from one photo to another. Some photos are sharp, others blurry.

I recommend that Dagoni travel North, East or South of Israel in Maps and try zooming in (“a tool enabling users to increase photo resolution”) to maximum resolution there. He will likely notice the same “privilege” accorded to Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt. (And Google’s photo database is revised every month. Individual photos are on average 18 months old.)

The Kyl-Bingaman Amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act of 1997 bars US satellite broadcasting companies, such as Space Imaging, from photographing Israeli sites at higher resolution than that provided by non-US commercial companies. The amendment is designed to enable US satellite companies to compete with companies outside the US, while protecting Israel\’s security at the same time.

In order to fulfill the law, Space Imaging must lower the resolution of its photograph of the DNRC taken from its Ikonos satellite from one meters to two meters.

Russian company Sovinformsputnik is also unwilling to supply high-resolution photographs of Israel. It is believed that Israel persuaded Russia to prevent sales of photographs of sites in Israel taken at resolution of less than two meters.

All true, as far as I know. Which is why the article should have had a final paragraph which goes like this. “Google is not a US satellite operator, and thus is not bound by these laws. Instead, it buys publicly available satellite imagery, and can do so both from US and foreign companies. Many regions of the world are not yet covered in detail, because the world is a big place and satellite imagery is expensive.”

That’s said, it would be nice to have high-resolution imagery of one of the world’s most important cities, historically: Jerusalem. And Masada, Beit Shean, Ceasarea and Mitzpe Ramon, too, would be excellent, close-up. And it is available to buy for Google — here is what 2.5m imagery of Tel Aviv looks like, for example. That’s currently much better than what’s shown in Maps/Earth.

4 thoughts on “Earth to Globes”

  1. I read the article differently. I understood it to say, if poorly, that Google has limited resolution imagery because of the decisions of other countries (like the US) regarding the sale of such imagery. I think that should be part of the final paragraph you suggest.

  2. Anon, had the article stated that Google has “limited” resolution images of Israel, then a misunderstanding would be possible, since “limited” could be construed as both an adjective or a past participle. But the article wrote that Google “limits” the resolution for available photos. In this case no misunderstanding is possible: The article ascribes an act of volition to Google, but does not back this up with any evidence.

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