Digital World: Security & secrets at Google

My problem with Google Earth isn't with its alleged security breaches, but with the content of its maps.

October 9, 2007 08:12
Digital World: Security & secrets at Google

google earth israel 88. (photo credit: )


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It's hard to imagine that the recent upgrade of Google Earth's images of Israel could contribute further to the ability of terrorists to attack Israel, as some have contended ( And it's not like the resolution is still all that great; true, at two meters per pixel (i.e. each pixel represents two meters of ground space) you can see much more than previously - but it's nothing like the resolution of the images for US and European sites, where you can see the actual lawn furniture in yards of homes, and zone in on a clear picture just a few dozen meters above ground (in Israel's case, any attempt to display anything closer than about 300 meters above ground resulted in a very blurry picture). And Google isn't picking on Israel; other countries, such as India ( have long felt that Google Earth gives away too much security information in its high-resolution photos of the country. And, to top it all off, Google Earth's photos are not real-time, but at least two years old. Meaning that there is nothing displayed on-line that Russian, American, Chinese, European or other countries' spy satellites haven't seen already - much more clearly, one would imagine. And, as the nature of these things go, one would also imagine that terrorists interested in such high-resolution images of Israel's strategic sites would have already procured a copy of these detailed, "top-secret" images long before the less-sophisticated versions of them made it to Google Earth. My problem with Google Earth isn't with the security breaches it's been accused of - but with the content of the maps themselves. And even that's not totally their fault; those of us who love Israel have to share some of the burden, too. But let me back up a bit, for those who are new to the subject. Google Earth ( is a free, downloadable program that "combines the power of Google Search with satellite imagery, maps, terrain and 3D buildings to put the world's geographic information at your fingertips." You can zoom in on real-life satellites images of towns, cities, historic sites - anything on the map, really. It's one of the greatest geographical education tools ever invented, as it allows you to see "for real" what you used to have to rely on a textbook for, and to check out the actual "conditions on the ground" when attempting to analyze a geopolitical situation. And, it's also a great tool for the budget-minded who book their vacations abroad over the Internet; armed with an address and location, you can actually check up on the hotel you're interested in and see if it lives up to its promise of "ocean views from all rooms!" Google Earth dovetails perfectly with Google's philosophy ( of spreading democracy through the Internet - of disseminating information and making it available to anyone, anywhere, at anytime. Naturally, that credo conflicts with the preferences of dictatorships around the world (like the ones in Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, etc.) and the need of countries under attack (like Israel) to keep their defensive and offensive capabilities a secret. But there are no secrets in a Google-ized world; typing "Bushehr nuclear" into Google Earth's location finder lets you "fly in" to the site of the Iranian nuke project, with annotated and detailed directions of exactly what you are looking at; ditto for "Dimona Nuclear Reactor," which officially does exist as far as Israel is concerned (; what's in question, of course, is what the facility does. If you don't want to download the program, check out, which has photos of several sensitive sites - in Israel and elsewhere - grabbed off Google Earth. But there are still many "secrets" about Israel that Google seems intent on keeping. While very good resolution images of sensitive security sites in Israel are now available to one and all, for free, Israel's side of the political conflict in the region still remains a secret to Google Earth users. It's one thing to give away military secrets, it would seem - the Google brass only has to contend with opposition from the IDF and the Defense Ministry; but try to put an annotation on the map that conflicts with the "received history" of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - i.e. Israel and Zionism bad, Arab claims to Israel proper or Judea and Samaria good - and you'll feel the wrath of the anti-Israel elements out there. It's pretty clear who Google is more afraid of! Note that this is not about leftist vs rightist politics in Israel, or about the "legitimacy of the settlements" or any other specific political position. It's about the exclusion from Google Earth of "facts" that differ with the "received history." Users otherwise ignorant of the regional conflict are going to use Google Earth to learn about Israel and its problems - and the way things stand now, they are getting only one side of the story. In a true democracy - which Google is sworn to spread - all opinions are aired, and listeners (or in this case, Google Earth surfers) decide which one they want to accept. But in this case, the Israeli side of the story is just not getting through. Take the example of the Tzrifin army base, which has a "user entry" marker in Google Earth (placed there apparently by a soldier upset about something). On the "official" Google Maps layer, there is a marker for a place called Sarafand Al-Amar, "one of the Palestinian localities evacuated and destroyed after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war," according to the place marker's blurb. A little Web research will tell you that the Tzrifin base is located more or less at the site of this abandoned Arab village. Open and shut case, right? Colonialist Jews throw out poor Palestinian farmers, and establish an army base where olive trees once grew! That's what you'd get if you relied on Google Earth for your geo-historical information. However, here is the story on Sarafand Al-Amar from the Hebrew language entry for Tzrifin (, in a loose translation: "Tzrifin (called Sarafand originally) was established at the end of the 1930s by the British. On the morning of May 16, 1948, a day after the State of Israel was declared, the British left the base and invited in soldiers of the Arab Legion (who had been waiting for the signal in the village, which was right next to the base-ds) in through the front gate - whereupon they proceeded to fire on nearby Rishon Lezion. The base and the town were conquered by soldiers of the Givati brigade on May 18-19." Oh, I get it - taking over the Sarafand Al-Amar area was a defensive act, not an attempt at "ethnic cleansing." Now you get it, too - but will a casual Google Earth user? Not likely. There are things that can be done to change the situation, though - and I will describe them next time.

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