The satellite images of Pyongyang (R), North Korea's secretive capital, are of far better quality than that of Gaza City (L).(Google Earth)
The satellite images of Pyongyang (R), North Korea's secretive capital, are of far better quality than that of Gaza City (L).(Google Earth)

Israel-Palestine conflict: Why images of densely-populated Gaza blurry on Google Maps?

  • The low-resolution satellite images of Gaza, one of the most densely populated places on Earth, on Google Maps makes it difficult to even identify the buildings in some cases.
By hindustantimes.com | Written by Kunal Gaurav | Edited by Avik Roy, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
PUBLISHED ON MAY 17, 2021 09:26 PM IST

Amid the worst Israeli-Palestinian violence in years, researchers observing the conflict through public domain information have raised concern about the blurry satellite images of the region on Google Maps. The low-resolution satellite images of Gaza, one of the most densely populated places on Earth, on Google Maps makes it difficult to even identify the buildings in some cases. The satellite images of Pyongyang, North Korea's secretive capital, are of far better quality on Google Maps.

Google relies on a range of third parties that own satellites to supply imagery, and the mapping team stitches those images to “create a seamless map.” However, when higher quality satellite images are available from satellite companies like Maxar and Planet Labs, two of the largest, researchers find it “absurd” that Google is still providing blurry images.

This satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies shows the rubble of the Hanadi Tower after an Israeli strike collapsed it in Gaza City.(AP)
This satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies shows the rubble of the Hanadi Tower after an Israeli strike collapsed it in Gaza City.(AP)

Google claims that the company aims to update satellite imagery of the places “that are changing the most.” “Overall, our goal is to keep densely populated places refreshed on a regular basis and to keep up with a changing world, so we will refresh areas more frequently when we think there’s lots of building or road construction going on,” Matt Manolides, Google’s Geo Data Strategist, said in a blog post.

With over 13,000 people per square mile, Gaza City is more densely populated than major world cities like London and Shanghai. But Google Maps shows clearer images of far less densely populated areas than Gaza. “The most recent Google Earth image is from 2016 and looks like trash. I zoomed in on some random rural area of Syria and it has had 20+ images taken since that time, in very high resolution,” tweeted Aric Toler, a journalist for Bellingcat.

Also Read | India condemns all violence in Israel, Gaza; supports 'just Palestinian cause'

What does the US law say on image availability?

Until last year, the American providers were barred from selling clearer satellite images of Israel and the Palestinian territories. In 1997, the Kyl-Bingaman Amendment (KBA) was introduced to address the security concerns of Israel, under which satellite images of the region used in mapping services like Google Earth could not show items smaller than 2 metres across.

While it is not uncommon for companies to blur out sensitive areas like military bases, KBA was an exception with such a wide area getting impacted. But the regulation was dropped in July last year after the US Commercial Remote Sensing Regulatory Affairs Office argued that “a number of foreign sources” were already producing and disseminating sub-2 metre imagery of Israel, reported Reuters.

Why are Gaza images still blurry?

Google is still using blurry images from 2016 to show areas of Gaza. According to a BBC report, Google said that it considers "opportunities to refresh [its] satellite imagery as higher-resolution imagery becomes available", however, added that it had "no plans to share at this time". Apple Inc., which also shows satellite imagery through its mapping apps, said it was working to update its maps to a higher resolution, per BBC.

Satellite imagery plays an increasingly important role in investigating human rights abuses across the world. In 2017, Human Rights Watch partnered with satellite-imaging and data company Planet Labs to document rights violations, especially in countries where investigators face restrictions, like Myanmar or Syria. The satellite images provided by Planet Labs showed the widespread burning of ethnic Rohingya villages in Myanmar.

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