Google limits resolution for sensitive Israeli sites

Understandings reached by Israel reduce its vulnerability to enlarged satellite Internet photos of defense sites.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

Published by Globes [online] - www.globes.co.il - on December 22, 2005

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