February 9, 2008

Israeli bombing of Syria: followup

Filed under: Google, War — ubikcan @ 1:57 pm

Updated below.

Seymour Hersh has a follow up story in the New Yorker this week about the Israeli bombing of Syria last year. As reported in geospatial blogs such as Ogle Earth there is a geoweb angle to this story in that Google Earth imagery provider DigitalGlobe appears to have been tasked with collecting imagery from the bomb site prior to the Israeli bombing.

Seymour–a respected military and security analyst–casts doubt on the popular media story that this facility was nuclear. This popular explanation was also seemingly favored by Ogle Earth, drawing on the opinions of David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security, which Seymour describes as a “highly respected nonprofit research agency.” But it looks wrong, says Hersh.

According to interviews conducted by Hersh in Israel and Damascus however the site was probably not nuclear (it could have been a chemical munitions factory). Beyond this, it is not clear what it was (the fact that Koreans may have been helping build it might be leading to Syrian reluctance to talk about it). Albright has also backed off his claim that it was definitively a nuclear facility:

Albright, when I spoke to him in December, was far more circumspect than he had been in October. “We never said ‘we know’ it was a reactor, based on the image,” Albright said. “We wanted to make sure that the image was consistent with a reactor, and, from my point of view, it was. But that doesn’t confirm it’s a reactor.”

Hersh also writes:

Much of what one would expect to see around a secret nuclear site was lacking at the target, a former State Department intelligence expert who now deals with proliferation issues for the Congress said. “There is no security around the building,” he said. “No barracks for the Army or the workers. No associated complex.” Jeffrey Lewis, who heads the non-proliferation program at the New America Foundation, a think tank in Washington, told me that, even if the width and the length of the building were similar to the Korean site, its height was simply not sufficient to contain a Yongbyon-size reactor and also have enough room to extract the control rods, an essential step in the operation of the reactor; nor was there evidence in the published imagery of major underground construction. “All you could see was a box,” Lewis said. “You couldn’t see enough to know how big it will be or what it will do. It’s just a box.”

A former senior U.S. intelligence official, who has access to current intelligence, said, “We don’t have any proof of a reactor—no signals intelligence, no human intelligence, no satellite intelligence.”

As for the geospatial angle, the notable aspect of this event is how commercial, non-military imagery of the sort that is used in Google Earth is being used for military attacks, at least by Israel. One reason might be that this was a solely Israeli mission, done without help from Washington:

There is evidence to support this view. The satellite operated by DigitalGlobe, the Colorado firm that supplied Albright’s images, is for hire; anyone can order the satellite to photograph specific coördinates, a process that can cost anywhere from several hundred to hundreds of thousands of dollars. The company displays the results of these requests on its Web page, but not the identity of the customer. On five occasions between August 5th and August 27th of last year—before the Israeli bombing—DigitalGlobe was paid to take a tight image of the targeted building in Syria.

Clearly, whoever ordered the images likely had some involvement in plans for the attack. DigitalGlobe does about sixty per cent of its business with the U.S. government, but those contracts are for unclassified work, such as mapping. The government’s own military and intelligence satellite system, with an unmatched ability to achieve what analysts call “highly granular images,” could have supplied superior versions of the target sites. Israel has at least two military satellite systems, but, according to Allen Thomson, a former C.I.A. analyst, DigitalGlobe’s satellite has advantages for reconnaissance, making Israel a logical customer. (“Customer anonymity is crucial to us,” Chuck Herring, a spokesman for DigitalGlobe, said. “I don’t know who placed the order and couldn’t disclose it if I did.”)

Another possibility, according to Hersh, is that the site was part of a Russian-supplied radar defence system similar to those in Iran, and that by overflying Syrian airspace it would be triggered and “expose [it] to…exploitation” as a kind of dry-run for bombing Iran. It could also have been carried out to show military strength by Israel, given that the US NIE report (which was delayed by the US government for a year at the behest of Dick Cheney) had negative findings of an Iranian nuclear weapon. These findings were known in the intelligence community.

Israel may have had Iran in mind as much as Syria, according to a source quoted by Hersh.

Update: Ogle Earth notes that ISIS’ David Albright, quoted by Hersh in the New Yorker, has provided a clarification and partial objection to Hersh’s characterization of their analysis. ISIS says their quote was taken out of context, and that they have consistently maintained the site had nuclear purposes.

Hersh, who we at ISIS greatly respect, is correct to raise the issue of whether Israeli and U.S. intelligence are right about the purpose of the site. We are committed to developing that information publicly. Moreover, the bombing of the site raises troubling questions that require public answers. Hersh has added interesting and important information to this critical debate. He clearly believes that the site did not house a reactor, and he is entitled to his opinion. But much of his argument hinges on Albright’s statement that was taken out of context. His other evidence is from people who do not have direct knowledge of the case, or are limited to analyzing satellite imagery of the site, which we know cannot on its own answer the question of whether or not the site is a reactor.

This seems fair enough, but ISIS does not say what “direct knowledge” they have of the case, and it seems that they too analyzed satellite data of the site.

December 16, 2007

Doonesbury Google Earth cartoon

Filed under: Google, Humor — ubikcan @ 12:50 pm

Today’s Doonesbury cartoon is the second one to use Google Earth (I noted an earlier one from the New Yorker). Click for full-size:

Interestingly enough there actually is a program to monitor refugees and victims of human rights abuses using Google Earth. It’s run by the AAAS:

AAAS Caption: This image reveals a settlement of internally displaced persons next to the town of Tawilla.

November 29, 2007

Speculation: Google Earth to be closed down?

Filed under: Google, map — ubikcan @ 8:18 am

TechCrunch has a speculative post today suggesting that the new developments in Google Maps such as terrain and collaborative community mapping spells the end of Google Earth “in the next year or two.”

It is interesting to see the opposition to this speculation in the comments. As one person said “I’m already panicking,” showing just how far Google Earth has penetrated into our everyday lives in two and a half years.

The terrain feature as well as the wiki-style Our Maps (both released a couple of days ago) do indeed replicate to some extent the Google Earth experience but I find it hard to see that this spells the end of GE. First of all there is no tilt capability in GM allowing users to zoom “into” the scene. Plus, tons of 3D sketch-ups have been created–indeed GM has no comparable 3D feel to it at all. The latter also occupies a sub-window in your browser and therefore is not “immersive” like GE. And don’t forget that GE is well integrated into GIS, whereas G is more a web-based environment (embedding links in web pages for example–great but not the same).


October 25, 2007


Filed under: Google, map, Terror — ubikcan @ 4:10 pm


Ogle Earth has another sensible reaction to the latest story that terrorists are “using” Google Earth to plot their actions.

It’s not the sort of endorsement one wishes for. But Abu Walid is trying to boast about his militancy, as his Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade is now trying to outdo Hamas in the toughness stakes in order to win over the Gazan population. Google Earth is mentioned because it is a new tool — it is the best way yet to find the local supermarket, regardless of who you are. The Volkswagen bus used to transport the rocket doesn’t rate a mention by Abu Walid, but that’s because both we and he are used to terrorists having cars.

No doubt Second Amendment rightists will endorse this view as well (which makes me uncomfortable). But look, if you take away Google Earth (or censor portions of the world) you would perhaps make some minor impact on these guys until they found another way to get the imagery (and it is definitely available from other, non-US sources) and for sure at the same time make its usage by ordinary people needlessly difficult.

In the case of guns the alternatives are knives and fists which are definitely less dangerous than street sweepers and armor piercing shells.

April 30, 2007

They use film?

Filed under: Google, map — ubikcan @ 8:11 am

While I thought I knew roughly how aerial photography is carried out for things like Google Earth, I had no idea that film, not digital, imagery is collected.

Apparently the people who do all this imagery collection in planes are also very worried about “environmental regulations” putting a stop to it. I must say they might be right, then we’d only have satellites.

When it comes to airplane-based commercial aerial photography, film remains the most wide-spread capture medium. A decent camera can easily cost more than $1 million — and you’ll probably want two to capture stereo pairs, and don’t forget a spare. For now, digital cameras are no less expensive and offer few benefits over their film-based bretheren.

Both require a GPS-controlled platform, capable of shooting several shots a second. After scanning, typical film-based photography is for all intents and delivers a 250+ megapixel result — the digital alternative to such a beast is not exactly easy to find, and definately not inexpensive. Those are big files tool, and lossy compression is a bad, bad thing. Given the cost of fuel these days, redundancy is essential when it comes to data. That means being able to store four-to-twelve uncompressed (or minimally) 250+ megapixel images on two systems of one type or another, both of which must be rugged enough to withstand their environment.

Last but not least are the lenses. Outside the world of physics research, the highest quality land-camera lenses, even those in the cinematagraphic world, exhibit far more distortion than is acceptable for survey-grade aerial photography.

So, you’re right. And yes, it sucks. We’re betting environmental regulations will probably be the nail in the coffin over the next decade.

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