Ladies and gentlemen, this is unprecedented: Since October 26, 2021, anyone can open their internet browser and see the nuclear facility in Dimona at extraordinary resolution. They can go on a quest to look at where Israel’s submarines are docked or try to peek into other secret facilities. The new information is available due to an update by the mapping company Mapbox to Israel’s satellite images, from 2 meters per pixel to 50 centimeters per pixel.
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Such a modification has raised some security concerns in Israel. But Harel Dan, an Israeli expert on GIS and remote sensing, says that the sky won’t fall, even if everyone can make their desktop background a photo of Israel Air Force Sdot Micha Base which, according to foreign media reports, houses ground-to-ground Jericho missiles with nuclear warheads.
“This change has no significance in terms of security,” says Dan. “All this information was available to anyone who really needed it and was willing to pay for it. The real story is that a private technology company is finally showing very high-resolution information of Israel.”
According to Dan, the only surprise is that the update took so long. It all began with the Kyl-Bingaman Amendment, an American law which was passed in 1997 in response to breaches of secrecy in the Clinton administration. The president lifted the classified category from hundreds of thousands of satellite photos from the Cold War era. Israel exerted pressure at the time to limit the resolution of pictures over Israel, which is how the abovementioned amendment came into being.
The law states that collecting and distributing satellite photos at high resolution of Israel and the territories are allowed only with federal authorization. Moreover, there is a condition that the level of precision be no higher than available satellite photos from commercial sources outside the United States. Former President Donald Trump updated the amendment in July 2020, which allowed higher resolution of photos available to the public from 2 meters per pixel to 0.4 meters per pixel.
Nevertheless, firms that offer mapping and satellite photo services were in no hurry to update their photos in Israel. And so far we have seen only a drizzle, thanks to the American company Planet Labs that discovered new construction at the Dimona nuclear facility and revealed high-resolution photographs of the Sdot Micha Airbase as well.
Mapbox's upgrade broke the dam, while other companies in the field preferred to maintain the status quo. In June, when Yarden Michaeli and Omer Benjakob asked Google whether the company was planning on upgrading the resolution of its photos of Israel, it responded that it currently had no plans to share.
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While Israelis tend to focus on the issue's security aspect, Dan says that the technology can also be applied to civilian purposes such as ecological projects that identify and surveilled lone wild animals, or leaks of materials in remote areas.
Another potential use involves mapping neglected areas. “What areas are the least mapped in Israel? Arab communities,” Dan says. “This resolution allows mapping of places that are not properly represented. You don’t need someone roaming the street with a GPS, all you need is someone with a laptop and a mouse.
The issue that might bother the security establishment in Israel is not necessarily intelligence falling into enemy hands, but improved capabilities of civilians, journalists and independent entities to gather open-source information about its policy in the territories or the Negev.
"High-resolution satellite pictures are essential to analyze and verify photos and videos, especially in war zones where human rights infractions are taking place," says Aric Toler, head of research at Bellingcat, a Netherlands-based investigative journalism website specializing in open-source intelligence.
In June, Toler told Haaretz that "It’s absurd that Google, and even the Bing and Yandex search engines, refuse to provide high-quality satellite photos for one of the most densely populated areas on earth, and are regularly hit by Israeli airstrikes."