Blurring of satellite images by Russian mapping service Yandex maps reveals ‘secret’ military facilities, Matt Korda a Research Associate for the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, discovered.
According to Korda, Google Earth also occasionally applies the blurring at the request of governments, who would wish to keep their facilities secret.
“France, for example, has asked Google to obscure all imagery of its prisons after a French gangster successfully conducted a Hollywood-inspired jailbreak involving drones, smoke bombs, and a stolen helicopter(!)—and Google has agreed to comply by the end of 2018.”
Yandex maps is Russia’s leading mapping service, and it evidently also agreed to selectively blur out specific sites; however, it has done that only for Israel and Turkey. The areas range from large complexes, like airfields and arms and munition warehouses, to small inconspicuous buildings in city blocks.
According to the report, blurring out specific sites is unusual, it is normal for satellite imagery companies to downgrade the resolution on certain sets of imagery before releasing them to platforms like Yandex and Google Earth. An example is given, of how downtown Toronto is always in very high resolution and viewers can make out very specific details, while downtown Jerusalem is always much, much blurrier.
That is because, “a 1997 US law known as the Kyl-Bingaman Amendment (KBA) prohibits US companies from publishing satellite imagery of Israel at a Ground Sampling Distance lower than what is commercially available.”
Foreign mapping services don’t need to adhere to KBA, but they still do. Mostly, because KBA is institutionalized. But, probably also because Russian companies don’t want to worsen Russia’s relationship with Israel.
“However, Yandex has taken a step well beyond simply downgrading its Israeli imagery, as is typical for most mapping services. Yandex itself—or perhaps its imagery provider ScanEx—has blurred out specific military installations in their entirety. Interestingly, it has done the same to Turkey, a country that benefits from no special standards and is therefore almost always shown in very high resolution.”
According to Korda, the blurring is almost definitely the result of requests from both Israel and Turkey. However, this blurring had the adverse effect of revealing the location and exact perimeter of every significant military facility within both countries.
The blurred sites can be compared to un-blurred positions on Google Earth to find the undisclosed facilities.
Matt Korda, after doing exactly that, presented a list of “several intriguing points of consideration:”
- Included in the list of Yandex’s blurred sites are at least two NATO facilities: Allied Land Command (LANDCOM) in Izmir, and Incirlik Air Base, which hosts the largest contingent of US B61 nuclear gravity bombs at any single NATO base.
- No Russian facilities have been blurred—including its nuclear facilities, air bases, launch sites, or foreign military bases.
- Although none of Russia’s permanent military installations in Syria have been blurred, almost the entirety of Syria is depicted in extremely low resolution, making it nearly impossible to utilize Yandex for analyses of Syrian imagery. By contrast, both Crimea and the entire region of Donbass are visible at very high resolutions, so this blurring standard applies only selectively to Russia’s foreign operations.
- All four Israeli Patriot batteries that were identified via radar interference earlier were blurred out, confirming that the sites, in fact, have a military function.
Thus, having complied to the requests by Israel and Turkey, Yandex unwillingly revealed the sensitive sites’ locations, perimeters, and possibly potential functions.