Israeli official sounds alarm over sharper satellite imaging of country

Israeli official sounds alarm over sharper satellite imaging of country

Head of Defense Ministry’s space program says Israel apparently not consulted before US agency granted permission for commercial companies to provide higher resolution photos

Screen capture of the Knesset building in Jerusalem as seen on Google Earth. (Google Earth)
Screen capture of the Knesset building in Jerusalem as seen on Google Earth. (Google Earth)

An Israeli space official on Monday raised concerns over a recent move by the United States to allow sharper imaging of the country by commercial satellite operators — content that had previously been kept blurred as a security precaution.

Amnon Harari, head of the Defense Ministry’s Space Program, told the Kan public broadcaster that, as far has he knew, US officials did not consult with Israeli authorities about the change in policy.

“I don’t think they asked us in advance,” Harari said in remarks picked up by Reuters.

“We would always prefer to be photographed at the lowest resolution possible,” he said. “It’s always preferable to be seen blurred, rather than precisely.”

A US regulation from 1997, known as Kyl-Bingaman Amendment, restricts satellite images of Israel and the Palestinian territories used in US commercial services, such as Google Earth, to items that are more than two meters across.

Screen capture from video of Amnon Harari, head of the Defense Ministry’s Space Program. (YouTube)

The amendment limits the Ground Sample Distance, which means in practice that that each pixel — the dots used to make a complete image — represents four square meters on the ground. Objects smaller than two meters across tend to be lost in the final image. The smaller the GSD, the sharper the image and the more detail it provides.

On June 25, the US Commercial Remote Sensing Regulatory Affairs Office said that it was increasing the resolution limit to 0.4 meters. At that resolution, each pixel represents 0.16 of a square meter. The agency told Reuters that “a number of foreign sources” have already begun producing and providing new images of Israel with sub-two-meter resolution.

Non-US imaging companies have already been providing higher resolution images for a number of years.

Harari told Kan he believed the agency eased the restrictions to make US commercial satellites more competitive.

“We are in a process of studying what exactly is written there, what exactly the intentions are, what we can respond to, ultimately,” he said.

Asked if the US agency decision will affect its satellite images of Israel, Google Earth told Reuters to speak with its third-party providers.

One provider, Planet, told Reuters in a statement, “When the policy change goes into effect, we will follow the new provisions for providing high resolution imagery of the region.”

Israel is concerned that Lebanese terror group Hezbollah and Palestinian terror groups could use enhanced commercial satellite images to plan rocket attacks on key civilian and military sites, according to the report.

Hezbollah is known to be working on advanced precision missiles that can land within meters of a target.

The higher-resolution images could also be used to keep an eye on Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank, Reuters said.

Hagit Ofran, of the anti-settlement Peace Now lobby group, said the sharper images would enable monitors to have a better idea of what was happening on the ground.

With the poorer resolution images “it is difficult to know if what you are seeing is a new house or just a chicken coop,” she said.

On Monday, Israel successfully launched a new spy satellite, Ofek-16. The reconnaissance satellite was fired into space at 4 a.m. using a Shavit launch vehicle that took off from a launchpad in the Palmachim air base in central Israel, the Defense Ministry said.

Israel is one of a small number of countries in the world that operate reconnaissance satellites, giving it advanced intelligence-gathering capabilities.

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