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EXCLUSIVE: Israel could soon be 'unblurred' on Google Earth

A general Google Earth image of Israel and the surrounding regions
Imagery: Data SIO, NOAA, US Navy, NGA, GEBCO, Google, Mapa GIsrael, Landsat/Copernicus, ORION-ME
The US Congress' Kyl-Bingaman amendment has protected Israel from exposure in high-resolution satellite images

Israel could soon lose its privileged status as the only country in the world to enjoy immunity from publicly available high resolution satellite imagery, potentially exposing details of secret military sites but opening up new fields of environmental and archaeological research.

United States government records -- not previously reported -- reveal regulators at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are reviewing the implementation of a law that effectively prohibits the public dissemination of high-resolution satellite images of Israel, the West Bank and Gaza.

The 1997 law passed by the US Congress, known as the Kyl-Bingaman Amendment, means imagery of Israel has been actively ‘blurred’ even as satellite pictures of almost all other territories become sharper. While the legislation only refers to "Israel" it has also been implemented in the Palestinian territories. 

The amendment prevents US satellite imagery companies from selling pictures that are “no more detailed or precise than satellite imagery of Israel that is available from commercial sources.”

In practice, “commercial sources” has been interpreted to mean companies outside of the US that up until recently were not major players in the multi-billion dollar space industry.

However proceedings of an NOAA advisory council over the past year show that the body's Commercial Remote Sensory Regulatory Affairs office received evidence from two US companies that high resolution images of Israel are now widely available, triggering a long-overdue review into the enforcement of the Kyl-Bingaman amendment.

“NOAA is currently undergoing [a review of the evidence], and once that is complete, if the review is favorable and it is determined that the imagery is available, then NOAA will being issuing license requests to image at the highest commercially available resolution or coarser,” minutes from a meeting last year state.

A record of the council’s latest meeting, in April, note that the review is ongoing and that “many people are interested in the review of the Kyl-Bingaman resolution restriction.”

A spokesman for satellite issues at the NOAA did not answer written questions or return phone calls.

Imagery: Google via DigitalGlobe

Imagery: Google

Sensitive sites unmasked?

The current Kyl-Bingaman restrictions mean Israeli military and government facilities cannot be scrutinized by researchers and analysts in the detail that is possible for almost all other countries.

Using Google Earth, a free and increasingly sophisticated tool, a ballooning geospatial intelligence community has unearthed significant details about military and nuclear sites in Iran, Syria, North Korea.

Satellite sleuths are able to pinpoint where air defense systems are deployed in Syria, for example, as well as closely-held nuggets of Russia and Iran’s ballooning military presence in the Middle East.

Many publish their findings immediately on Twitter and Facebook, contributing to a swelling bank of public knowledge about governments around the world.

Although Israel’s main military opponents have their own access to satellite imagery, the ability of militant groups to also freely monitor stationary bases and changes over time would be a new advantage.

Eliot Higgins, who founded the investigative website Bellingcat that has investigated the shooting down of MH17 and atrocities in Syria, said the availability of high-resolution imagery of Israel and the Palestinian territories would be a boon for open source investigators.

“I think it would offer a whole range of opportunities to investigators looking into things in that area,” he told i24NEWS.

One example that could unnerve both Israel and Gaza’s rulers, Hamas, is the ability to geolocate the source of rocket or artillery fire by analyzing impact craters.

Imagery: Google via DigitalGlobe

Imagery: Google

“When we were looking at the conflict in Ukraine there were multiple crater fields cross Ukraine that you can see on Google Earth,” Higgins explained. “Craters of very specific shapes ... you can use that imagery to figure out where rockets has been fired form.”

The Israeli government itself has used high-resolution satellite imagery of Syria to track and publicly expose Iran's takeover and construction of military sites in that country.

Questions submitted by i24NEWS to the Israeli defense ministry were referred to the office of Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, which sent them back to the ministry, which did not respond.

The Israel Defense Forces also referred questions to the defense ministry.

While Google is forced by the Kyl-Bingaman amendment not to publish high resolution images of Israel on its platforms Google Maps and Google Earth, it does help Israel hide certain government sites from the global giant’s hugely popular Street View function.

The streets in Jerusalem and the coastal city of Caesarea that house Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s public and private residences are not covered by Street View and Google even blurs images that might give any glimpse of the buildings.

Street View drops out, too, around several military bases in the country including the Israel Defense Forces’ (IDF) imposing headquarters in central Tel Aviv. Israel’s embassy in Germany is also covered by blurring.

A spokesman for Google in Israel did not respond to written questions about whether the US-based company would offer sharper imagery if the NOAA review allows it or if it has been contacted by Israeli officials about the issue.

Scientific research ‘hampered’

AP Photo/Jake Schoellkopf

While the possibility of high-grade imagery of Israel flowing into the public domain may alarm governments, it also portends long-awaited opportunities for researchers.

Two archeologists at Oxford University have argued that an “open skies” policy for imagery of the region would help protect endangered archaeological sites and the illegal plundering of antiquities.

For unknown reasons, two small slivers of Israeli territory have not been missed from the ‘blurring’ effect that is imposed to comply with the Kyl-Bingaman amendment.

In just one of those, academics Dr. Michael Fradley and Dr. Andrea Zerbini of the university’s School of Archaeology were able to discern possible evidence of looting pits at an archaeological site in the West Bank.

In a May research paper published in the journal Space Policy, they argued that the US regulations “need urgent review, and [recommend] that US imagery should meet what has become the international standard of 0.5m.”

“Our research demonstrates not only how the current restrictions have hampered scientific research in this area, but also importantly highlights a clear rationale for moving on from the Kyl-Bingaman Amendment,” said Fradley.

“The reduction or removal of these restrictions would open up access to modern satellite imagery, as well as historical images captured by spy satellite that remain classified due to the legal reach of the Kyl-Bingaman Amendment, which could allow researchers to record longer-term landscape change.”

In the essay, the authors argued that their discussion about fixes to the little-known US law are five years behind schedule, with sharp European satellite imagery having been available commercially since at least 2012.

The amendment was tucked within the 1997 Defense Authorization Act by Senators Jon Kyl, Kay Bailey Hutchison and Jeff Bingaman -- two Republicans and one Democrat.

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