Why does the Gaza Strip, one of the most densely populated places in the world, appear blurry on Google Maps?
This is an issue that has been raised by researchers who use open source information (publicly available, such as social networks and databases open and accessible to all, including geographic mapping data) in order to identify the places attacked and to document the destruction during the conflict.
“The fact that we are not getting high resolution satellite images of Israel and the Palestinian territories is an obstacle,” said Samir, a researcher who uses information available in open source.
In fact, much of Israel and the Palestinian territories appear on Google Earth as low-resolution satellite images, even though satellite companies have and market high-quality images of the region.
Given the low resolution of the images made available by Google, it is almost indistinguishable from the cars in Gaza City.
In comparison, images of Pyongyang, the closed capital of North Korea, feature well-defined cars, and you can even make out people.
Why are satellite images so important?
The use of satellite images has become a key part of conflict archives.
In the latest Middle East confrontation, researchers are using satellites to try to confirm the exact locations of missiles launched and buildings hit in Gaza and Israel.
But on Google Earth, the most popular platform in this segment, the most recent images of Gaza appear in low resolution and sometimes out of focus.
“The most recent Google Earth images are from 2016 and are garbage. I have zoomed in on random areas of rural Syria and over 20 images have been recorded (since 2016) in high resolution,” the journalist wrote. from Twitter Aric Toler, from Bellingcat.
Google says its aim is to keep images of densely populated places up to date, but that has not been the case in Gaza.
Are high resolution images available?
Until last year, the United States government limited the quality of satellite images of Israel and the Palestinian territories that American companies could market.
The restrictions were passed in 1997, through the Kyl-Bingaman Amendment (KBA), to support Israel’s security concerns.
As part of the KBA, US satellite imagery providers could offer low-resolution images, with pixels larger than 2m (making an object the size of a car visible).
It is not uncommon for places like military bases to be blurry in these images, but the KBA has become the first instance where an entire country is placed in this condition.
The US law only mentions Israel, but it has also been applied to the Palestinian territories, which are partly occupied by Israeli forces.
However, as many companies in other countries, such as Airbus in France, have the ability to provide these images in high resolution, the United States has come under heavy pressure to lift restrictions on the quality of images marketed.
In July 2020, the KBA was revoked and the US government now allows US companies to provide high-resolution images of the region. A pixel can now be 40cm, for example, which would make it possible to distinguish a person.
“The initial motivation is scientific,” says Michael Fradley, an archaeologist at the University of Oxford, UK, and one of the academics who participated in the successful campaign for US law to be changed.
“We wanted to have a consistent data source to work on our project, so we needed high resolution access in the Occupied Palestinian Territories comparable to what we use elsewhere in the region.”
So why is Gaza still blurry on Google?
The BBC spoke to Google and Apple (whose mapping apps also display satellite images).
Apple said it is working on updating its maps to a larger 40cm resolution soon.
Google told the BBC its images were sourced from various vendors and were considering “updating opportunities [suas] satellite imagery as high resolution imagery becomes available. But he added that “there is no news to announce at the moment”.
“Given the importance of current affairs, I see no reason why commercial images in this area continue to be deliberately blurry,” tweeted Nick Waters, open source researcher at Bellingcat.
Who, after all, records these images?
Public mapping platforms, such as Google Earth and Apple Maps, rely on companies with satellites to provide these images.
Maxar and Planet Labs, two of the largest in the industry, now provide high-resolution images of Israel and Gaza.
“Due to recent changes in US regulations, images of Israel and Gaza are provided with a resolution of 0.4m (40cm),” Maxar said in a statement.
Planet Labs told the BBC that it is providing images with a resolution of 50cm.
Researchers, however, rely heavily on free mapping software (such as Google) and generally do not have direct access to these high-resolution images.
What can high-resolution images reveal?
Human Rights Watch researchers joined Planet Labs in 2017 to show the army’s destruction of Rohingya villages in Myanmar.
The images made it possible to map the extent of the damage in more than 200 villages in the area, by comparing satellite images with a resolution of 40 cm of these areas before and after.
The evidence helped corroborate the accusations of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority who fled Myanmar to neighboring Bangladesh after their homes were attacked by the military.
Satellite imagery has also been vital in tracking what is happening in China’s Xinjiang region, including the network of “re-education” centers established there for Uyghurs.
The information made it possible to show where these facilities were built, and the high-resolution images also gave an idea of their size and peculiarities.