Why Google Earth Pixelates Israel
William Fenton – PC Magazine William Fenton – Pc Magazine – Tue Jun 14, 10:32 am ET
If Google Earth maps the trees, the oceans, and the annals of history, why is a country, Israel, so hard to make out? An article from Mother Jones explores how U.S. policy makers have pixelated Google Earth and why that might change in 2013.
Israel's low–resolution e–presence can be traced back to the 1997 National Defense Authorization Act. Tucked inside the 2,870–page bill is a two–bullet point section titled "SEC. 1064. PROHIBITION ON COLLECTION AND RELEASE OF DETAILED SATELLITE IMAGERY RELATING TO ISRAEL" (page 2653). Below, the full–text:
(a) COLLECTION AND DISSEMINATION.–A department or agency of the United States may issue a license for the collection or dissemination by a non–Federal entity of satellite imagery with respect to Israel only if such imagery is no more detailed or precise than satellite imagery of Israel that is available from commercial sources.
(b) DECLASSIFICATION AND RELEASE.–A department or agency of the United States may declassify or otherwise release satellite imagery with respect to Israel only if such imagery is no more detailed or precise than satellite imagery of Israel that is available from commercial sources.
While we have previously reported on the U.S. government's Google Earth unease, Section 1064, also known as the Kyl–Bingaman Amendment, limits zoomed–in satellite imagery of Israel. Because the section stipulates that imagery can be "no more detailed or precise than satellite imagery of Israel that is available from commercial sources," the amendment has a material impact on "non–federal" entities, like Google.
"The images in Google Earth are sourced from a wide range of both commercial and public sources," a Google spokesperson told Mother Jones. "We source our satellite imagery from U.S.–based companies who are subject to US law ... which limits the resolution of imagery of Israel that may be commercially distributed."
These laws are policed by NOAA's Commercial Remote Sensing Regulatory Affairs. The agency did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but an article in the Washington Reports on Middle East Affairs offers a more specific working explanation.
"Letters sent by NOAA to every major U.S. commercial satellite firm were widely interpreted to mean that the baseline for what is commercially available was one–meter digital imagery," the article said. "The widely held belief in the industry was that the Kyl–Bingaman amendment would not be enforced against U.S. firms that didn't collect digital imagery of Israel below the one–meter threshold, which none of the major U.S. firms planned to do."
A "one–meter threshold" means that U.S. companies, such as Google, could provide images with no higher resolution than one pixel representing one square meter. Whether that threshold applies, however, to disputed territories–such as Gaza Strip–remains unclear, though, Mother Jones reports that Human Rights Watch has yet to provide "detailed imagery of the Gaza Strip in its reports." At the bottom of the page I have included two images from Google Earth: The first is from the Gaza Strip, the second Tripoli. You be the judge.
While U.S. companies–regulated by Section 1064–currently lead the world in satellite imaging, that may soon change, and with it, the view of Israel. Earlier this spring Turkey announced that its GokTurk satellite would provide high–resolution Israeli images beginning in 2013. Once those images are "commercially available" from a non–U.S. entity, Google would conceivably have the option to use them in Google Earth.
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