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Wednesday, 10 October 2007

Israel's top secret sites on Google Earth

SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

Jerusalem -- Israel's most top secret security installations have been
jeopardized by a new version of Google Earth, Israeli military experts
say.

Satellite photographs of the sites, downloaded from Google Earth, were
published last week on the front page of Israel's largest-selling
newspaper. The latest version of the popular Internet mapping tool
clearly shows sites viewed by the government as sensitive - such as
the nation's classified nuclear research station in the Negev Desert
city of Dimona, the headquarters of the Mossad spy agency, Israeli air
force bases, the location of the Arrow missile defense system and the
central military headquarters and Defense Ministry compound in Tel
Aviv.

Yediot Ahronot, the Israeli daily that published the photographs on
its front page, said the upgraded Web site is an "asset" to enemy
states and a "treasure" to terrorists. Israel has spent decades and
millions of dollars hiding these sites from public view. All are
heavily guarded round-the-clock, and the location of the Mossad
headquarters is a closely guarded secret. Reporters in Israel are
forbidden from photographing or revealing any details about these
locations under strict military censorship.

Israeli government and security officials refused to comment on the
photographs. But a former military intelligence officer, who spoke on
condition of anonymity, said: "Anything I say will be
counterproductive. I think I'll avoid that issue completely."

But Professor Gerald Steinberg, chairman of the political science
department at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, disagrees. He says
Israel has been prepared for the new Google Earth images, which he
says do not endanger Israel's security.

"Israel has had 10 years to prepare for this," said Steinberg, who
helped draft an agreement with the United States limiting satellite
resolution imagery. "It was the Clinton administration's policy to
make available high-resolution imaging. Israel was granted a cushion
which for clear security reasons does not put all the available
information on the Internet.

"The satellite pictures were available before now to anyone with a few
thousand dollars. They are not real-time pictures, and they were not
taken yesterday. I don't think this is a major change in security."

The new high-resolution images, made available to Google Earth users
last week, consist of one pixel per 2.4 square yards. Until now,
previous images of Israel were limited to one pixel per 12 to 24
yards.

Cordy Griffiths, a Google spokesperson in London, said the images were
upgraded last week in line with a Google Earth policy of improving its
service to users. But Griffiths said all Google Earth images are
bought from commercial satellite imaging companies and governed by the
U.S.-Israel agreement.

"These new images fall within the law," said Griffiths. "It is higher
resolution than the imagery we had before, but it is freely available
material that we buy from third parties. The onus is on them to check
that everything is legal."

Griffiths preferred not to answer whether Israeli officials have
complained to Google since the new images were posted. "We would be
happy to discuss any concerns the Israeli government might have," she
said. "None of the images have been changed since the imagery update
for Israel in Google Earth last week."

Griffiths also denied reports that Google images of India were
deliberately blurred or distorted to protect security installations in
that country.

"Google does not intentionally degrade or distort image quality.
However, we use the imagery that comes to us from our data suppliers,
some of which includes clearly blurred or degraded imagery. For
example, an airbase in the Netherlands, the vice president's residence
in Washington, D.C.," she said.

According to Israeli experts, the photographs in question are a year
or two years old, and clearly show the layout of top-secret buildings.
The photograph of the nuclear plant at Dimona shows the approach
roads, internal walkways and individual buildings in a facility that
is off-limits and hidden behind electric fences with large warnings
signs and a complex array of cameras and other security devices.

The images also include Camp Rabin, the heavily guarded defense
headquarters in central Tel Aviv that is surrounded by anti-terrorist
blockades, a high wall and buildings with bomb-proof windows. It
contains the underground bunker from which Israel's top generals
command their military campaigns, as well as the offices of the prime
minister, defense minister and Shin Bet secret service.

Moreover, the alleged Mossad headquarters, whose location is a highly
protected secret, was identified and labeled by a Google Earth user.

"This contains a stock of information in which any intelligence body
would be willing to invest a great deal of money and effort in order
to get its hands on it," said Alex Fishman, Yediot Ahronot security
correspondent. "Locating sensitive strategic and security facilities
in Israel is a major objective for countries like Iran and Syria."

But political scientist Steinberg recalls similar fears when the first
satellite photos of Dimona were declassified by the United States some
10 years ago.

"There was concern this would have a negative impact on Israeli
security," he said. "It doesn't seem to have given any information to
anyone that was used to carry out attacks."

This article appeared on page A - 13 of the San Francisco Chronicle

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