Google Won't Say If It Will Update Its Blurry Maps of Gaza

Images of Israel and Gaza are now legal to distribute. But Google is still running outdated images on Maps, potentially hindering open source conflict researchers.
May 17, 2021, 4:09pm
Gaza in Google Maps
Image: Screenshot of Google Maps
Screen Shot 2021-02-24 at 3
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Google has refused to say whether it plans to update Google Maps with high-resolution imagery of the Israel and Gaza region now that a law banning such imagery has been lifted. For years, public satellite imagery of the region has been blurry because of a U.S. regulation that limited the quality and availability of such images. The law was lifted last year and at least one company Google Maps has used now offers higher resolution images of the area.

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Apple has said it is working to update its own map product with higher-resolution imagery, while Google won't say what it will do.

"If all things are equal—there are no legislative restrictions, there is available imagery, and so on—there's no reason to explain why Gaza in particular has old, low-resolution imagery," Aric Toler, director of training and research at open source research organization Bellingcat, told Motherboard in an online chat.

Google told Motherboard that it considers opportunities to update its satellite imagery as higher resolution images become available, but that the company had no plans to share at this time when asked specifically if it would update imagery for Israel and Gaza.

Do you know anything else about high-resolution satellite imagery in Gaza or Israel? We’d love to hear from you. Using a non-work phone or computer, you can contact Joseph Cox securely on Signal on +44 20 8133 5190, Wickr on josephcox, OTR chat on jfcox@jabber.ccc.de, or email joseph.cox@vice.com.

High-resolution imagery can be of vital importance to open source researchers who use satellite photographs to corroborate what exactly is happening during times of conflict. For example, new satellite images show the aftermath of Israel's bombing of a tower block in Gaza. Researchers regularly compare historical satellite images to present-day ones to study environmental destruction, the creation of military bases, mass grave sites, new building developments, the destruction caused by war, and other things that are in the public interest.

Images like this would be particularly useful during the current conflict in Gaza. According to health officials in Gaza, Israeli strikes have killed 198 people and injured around 1,300 people in Gaza in recent days. Hamas rockets fired from Gaza have killed 10 people in Israel recently.

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Last June, a U.S. regulation called the Kyl-Bingaman Amendment (KBA) was reformed, meaning high resolution imagery is legally accessible to all, Foreign Policy reported at the time. The KBA had previously limited the quality and availability of images produced by U.S. companies covering Israel, and by extension, the occupied territories, Foreign Policy added.

But nearly a year later, Google Maps, and Apple's and Microsoft's own map products, are still using low-resolution imagery for the region. Apple told the BBC that it is working to update its maps to a higher-resolution. Microsoft, which owns the Bing Maps product, did not respond to Motherboard's request for comment; at the time of writing it appears to be displaying lower-resolution imagery as well.

Google, for its part, has quickly updated its Maps product for other regions and conflicts before, according to Toler.

"Google was excellent and super responsive with getting fresh imagery up on Google Earth in eastern Ukraine during the height of the conflict, so there is clearly an internal policy of refreshing imagery in conflict zones where there is interest," Toler told Motherboard.

Google told Motherboard it sources the imagery for Google Maps and Earth from a range of public, government, commercial and private sector providers. One of those is Maxar Technologies, a well-known geospatial data company. At least some of the current lower-resolution imagery available on Google Maps of Gaza is from Maxar, according to copyright stamps on the Google Maps site itself.

Maxar has been taking at least some higher-resolution imagery of the region and has shared it with others. Christoph Koettl, a visual investigations journalist with the New York Times, tweeted two images sourced from Maxar last week which show some impact of the ongoing conflict in higher-detail. Maxar acknowledged a request for comment but did not provide a response in time for publication.

"I don't expect them to get stuff up in a matter of days or even weeks, but for months and even years (as we're seeing now with the changes in KBA), it starts to have you scratching your head a bit," Toler said of Google.

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