What a map doesn’t show can be just as revealing as what it does. In the case of satellite footage of Israel and Turkey, provided by Russian map service Yandex, the maps offer a degree of obscurity so precise it becomes transparency. In the Yandex-available maps of both countries, military installations are blurred out, creating a fuzzy void in the exact footprint of a barracks, or an airfield, or an otherwise nondescript office inside a normal city block.
Spotted by Matt Korda, a Research Associate at the Federation of American Scientists, the maps are a fantastic case study in a security measure gone wrong. For open-source researchers looking to create an atlas of military installations in Turkey or Israel, the obscurity offered by these mapping services is a tremendous boon. Exact coordinates of points of interest, the nature of which is explicitly military, makes the obscurity more of a guide than a deception.
Open-source researchers often use satellite images, especially across multiple providers, to uncover information that is otherwise difficult to obtain. In November 2017, the World Bank released an analysis of satellite footage of ISIS-held territory to reveal that the statelet was struggling to produce oil. In September 2018, open-source investigation house Bellingcat disclosed how to use satellite footage to find evidence of the destruction of villages. With future improvements to the speed at which satellite imagery is acquired and then made available, fast analysis of minute changes may even be on the horizon.
All of this can make national security measures, like the conspicuous blurring of sensitive sites in certain maps, become surprise vulnerabilities when cross-referenced with other mapping services. (For a classic example of this, consider this 2014 dive into where exactly the nuclear storage is at Volkel Airbase.)
So what to make of the maps? C4ISRNET spoke with Korda to better grasp the implications of this blurry find. Key to this research is the Kyl-Bingaman Amendment, a 1997 law that restricts the resolution at which US companies can publish satellite imagery of Israel.
C4ISRNET: Are there other laws beyond the Kyl-Bingaman Amendment that might limit resolution of such imagery?
KORDA: While the KBA is perhaps the most prominent and widely enforced law that bans high-resolution imagery of a specific area, there are several other actions that governments can take to restrict the availability of high-res satellite imagery. In the United States, the Land Remote Sensing Policy Act allows the government to maintain de facto “shutter control” over commercial satellites, meaning that images can be prohibited or exclusively purchased by the government for reasons pertaining to national security. Many other countries maintain similar laws, some of which are even more strict.
C4ISRNET: What sort of new facilities are discoverable this way?
KORDA: Many of the obscured sites still remain unidentified, due to both the sheer volume of data and the lack of information and signatures about specific facilities. However, some of the most interesting revelations were those corresponding to facilities that were clearly intended to be camouflaged. For example, certain munitions storage bunkers in the Negev appear to be designed in such a way so that they aren’t easily visible through satellite imagery. Of course, having those sites appear as large shimmering blurs in the desert gives them away pretty easily.
C4ISRNET: Would it be possible for a service to deliberately blur locations in order to attract attention to them? What would that look like in practice?
KORDA. Intentional blurring to create OSINT red herrings or to draw attention toward specific sites is a possibility, although in this case neither seems particularly likely. The role of mapping services is usually reactive in these types of cases, as they are almost certainly responding to specific requests made by Israel and Turkey to blur their sensitive sites.
C4ISRNET: What’s the biggest implication of this for OSINT researchers? What about for military planners?
KORDA: This incident follows other high-profile instances of private companies inadvertently revealing the locations of potentially sensitive military facilities. Earlier this year, the fitness app Strava published its global heat-map data, accidentally revealing overseas military bases, prisons and CIA black sites [Ed note: Here’s our Strava coverage.] While data dumps like this are gold mines for OSINT analysts, governments and militaries should be cognizant of the ways in which their data can increasingly be accessed through open-source methods.
Correspondingly, they should take steps to safeguard information that is absolutely critical to national security, and be more publicly transparent with information that is not.
Kelsey Atherton blogs about military technology for C4ISRNET, Fifth Domain, Defense News, and Military Times. He previously wrote for Popular Science, and also created, solicited, and edited content for a group blog on political science fiction and international security.