A geospatial security measure backfired this week when Russian mapping firm Yandex inadvertently revealed the precise locations of sensitive military and intelligence operations in Turkey and Israel by blurring the sites heavily out of focus.

The blur was supposed to provide a cloak of invisibility for the locations, but instead acted as an attention-grabbing flag. Curious analysts promptly recognized that the blurs, especially in high-resolution urban areas, probably indicated areas of particular sensitivity. They then cross-referenced Yandex’s doctored imagery against unedited, open-source imagery of the same coordinates. What they found included: NATO’s Allied Land Command in Izmir and Incirlik Air Base, both of which are used by the U.S. military; Camp Glilot, the headquarters of an elite Israeli signals intelligence unit; multiple Israeli Patriot surface-to-air-missile batteries; and hundreds of seemingly nondescript complexes, airfields, ports, and buildings used to house military operations. The blur revealed not only the location, but also the size and perimeter of many sites.

The Federation of American Scientists’ Matt Korda broke the story, reporting that Yandex’s blurring of the sites was likely done at the request of the Turkish and Israeli governments. This is a fairly common practice between nations and global imagery services. Google has complied with requests from India, Australia, France, and more to block out certain locations on its Earth and Maps platforms. Alternatively, the government of Malaysia specifically requested that Google Earth not blur any sensitive sites throughout the nation, anticipating this would reveal the locations in question.

Another common practice is to simply lower image resolution in certain areas to remove details and help sensitive military or political sites blend in with surroundings. 

Yandex’s faux pas is the latest instance of private companies accidentally leaking military-related location intelligence. In February, it was revealed that fitness app Strava’s global heat map inadvertently made it easy to identify U.S. military installations and routine patrol routes in Syria, Ukraine, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, and more.

As global location data and satellite imagery continue to proliferate, governments are faced with the difficult task of protecting sensitive data while still working alongside an innovative commercial sector that values openness and data transparency.

Photo Credit: Yandex Maps via the Federation of American Scientists

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Posted by Andrew Foerch