Google Earth: Democratizing Image Intelligence in Syria and Beyond

by Galen Wright.

June 2015 marked Google Earth’s 10th anniversary, which a number of writers marked with reflective essays. One theme was how quickly the program spilled over into the real-world. One writer described – for example – how rescue workers used it to search for survivors in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the city of New Orleans in 2005.

The world is a big place, and it can be hard to know where to begin your virtual journey. Now you can jump straight to the newest and most interesting imagery around the globe with a new layer, Voyager, available in desktop versions of Google Earth.

The world is a big place, and it can be hard to know where to begin your virtual journey. Now you can jump straight to the newest and most interesting imagery around the globe with a new layer, Voyager, available in desktop versions of Google Earth.

Unsurprisingly, it didn’t take long for Google Earth and similar services that provide free access to remote sensing imagery to affect the use of imagery intelligence (IMINT) in conflicts around the world. [1] This report focuses on its use in the ongoing Syrian Civil War, and to a lesser degree the broader region.

Its use is broadly comparable to user-generated content (UGC), which has become a fixture on the modern battlefield. Programs like YouTube provide infrastructure for anyone with an internet connection to both consume and produce media at the global level. These can even supersede traditional monologic models, which are characterized by a centralized distributor and many receivers (e.g. television and newspapers).

While Google Earth is distinct from UGC in that the former isn’t actually “user-generated”, it’s had much the same effect in that it encourages the decentralized exchange of information to combatants. Accurate and up-to-date satellite imagery is now available at the touch of a finger. This has enabled the widespread use of IMINT on battlefields that would otherwise lack it, especially by intrastate actors without the means of sustaining the complexity of a traditional intelligence process.

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A simplified representation of information flow within the intelligence cycle.

The Traditional Intelligence Cycle
Understanding the physical flow of information within an intelligence cycle helps illustrate why loosely structured actors have a hard time exploiting conventional IMINT.

The cycle contains four or five distinct steps, depending on how one chooses to go about classification:

  • Direction – First a need for intelligence is identified by a central authority, and the command given. For example, a commander in the Syrian Army is tasked with clearing a Damascus neighborhood. He recognizes the need to know what sort of insurgent defenses he faces, so he orders an aerial survey. [2]
  • Collection – Second, raw data is gathered in large quantities, which is then pushed upwards by lower-level echelons, concentrating it higher up the command chain. In the example, this might take the form of several UAV overflights producing a mix of high-resolution still pictures and multi-spectral video feeds, which are then provided in bulk to the commander’s staff.
  • Processing & Analysis – Third, the mass of data is transformed into smaller quantities of information, and ultimately into a much smaller, but far more valuable, piece of intelligence. In the example, this might involve turning photos (data) into maps (information) before being analyzed to produce a comprehensive picture of suspected insurgent fortifications (intelligence).
  • Dissemination – Finally, the resulting product is pushed downwards to an array of subordinate units. In the example, this might involve distributing large print-outs to battalion or company commanders.

The specifics of the cycle depends on the scale – a battalion intelligence officer acts differently than the Director of National Intelligence – but the pattern of first concentrating diffuse information up the chain of command, before distributing it back down again, is replicated at any scale.

This pattern of concentration and diffusion works most of the time. Its persistence – and the persistence of the hierarchical staff system writ large – is proof enough of this fact.

However effective it may be though, it’s vulnerable to disruption as it it relies on synchronized coordination between many elements. When there is a bottleneck in one area, the whole cycle suffers. In the example above, such a disruption might include a lack of available surveillance platforms, which would prevent enough data from accumulating to progress to the analysis and dissemination stages. Whatever the reason, a bottleneck prevents either the concentration of information or the dissemination of intelligence.

The potential for disruption means that if the system isn’t a well oiled machine – or if it’s absent altogether – effective intelligence will be out of reach. This is especially the case with IMINT (compared to other disciplines), which requires a system of air and space based sensors that are almost always beyond the capabilities of non-state actors.

This asymmetry in IMINT is changing though, and Google Earth is helping to level the playing field.

GE (16MAR14) Yakosuka Naval Base: An example of a nice satellite image of the Japanese Naval Base with the USS George Washington (CVN-73). The US carrier departed Japan in May 2015 to participate in Exercise Talisman Sabre 2015 with Australia and New Zealand.

GE (16MAR14) Yakosuka Naval Base: An example of a nice satellite image of the Japanese Naval Base with the USS George Washington (CVN-73). The US carrier departed Japan in May 2015 to participate in Exercise Talisman Sabre 2015 with Australia and New Zealand.

The Early Years (2005-2010)
Since it first came online in 2005, Google Earth has been increasingly documented in war zones, going hand in hand with the growth of mobile computing and low-cost networking.

For the first five years or so, it is only known to have appeared on the battlefield a handful of times. Moreover, when reports of its use did surface there was little actual indication how it was used, if at all. Finally, these reports came mainly from security officials who had a vested interest in playing up speculative risks.

In occupation-era Iraq, the CIA’s Open Source Center (OSC) reported that insurgents from the Islamic Army in Iraq were claiming to have used Google Earth to plan rocket attacks by July 2006. Similarly, the OSC also reported that the British Army recovered printed maps that had been generated using Google Earth, during a 2007 raid in Basra.

Around the same time, in September 2006, several car bombs targeted petroleum processing facilities in Yemen. Although damage was minimal, the attack was reportedly planned with Google Earth. While plausible, no further details about its use were provided.

In October 2007, a spokesman for the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade – an armed Palestinian group operating out of Gaza – told reporters from The Guardian that the group used Google Earth to plan rocket attacks on southern Israel. Specifically, he claimed that the group used the program to spot high value targets in urban areas by cross-referencing the imagery with conventional maps.

However, it wasn’t until the November 2008 attacks by Lashkar-e Taiba (LeT) in the Indian megacity of Mumbai that Google Earth came to be associated with a mass casualty event. Again, details are scant, but it appears that the LeT assault team used the program to familiarize themselves with the spatial layout of their targets beforehand.

A map published on a pro-Assad news site, showing progress of Hezbollah and government forces during the ongoing assault against Zabadani in September 2015.

A map published on a pro-Assad news site, showing progress of Hezbollah and government forces during the ongoing assault against Zabadani in September 2015.

A Maturing Alternative (2010-2015)
Around the turn of the decade, by the time of the now-unfortunately-named “Arab Spring” in 2011, technical developments had reached a point where mobile media could now be deployed in the field en masse. To a large degree, the story of how user-generated content on social media shaped the region’s unrest has already been told.

Among these tools was, and still is, Google Earth. Unlike earlier examples, evidence of its use is prevalent. In the cases examined Google Earth’s use could be grouped into three broad categories: for public relations, to prepare for operations, and for fire direction during combat itself.

In the first role, Google Earth is used in conjunction with a social media account to tell a story about the balance of control on the ground. Typically, a graphics editing software will be used to portray the front line, areas of control, and changes over time. This offers an intuitive visual representation of each side’s victories and defeats. Like radio broadcasts or leaflet drops from an earlier era, this can serve to demoralize an enemy or rally one’s own supporters.

In this use, the line between combatant, activist, and journalist is often blurred. For example, this is an example of a map published on a pro-Assad news site, showing progress of Hezbollah and government forces during the ongoing assault against Zabadani in September 2015.

Although the first role doesn’t constitute – technically speaking – a battlefield use, the second certainly does. Intelligence preparation of the battlefield constitutes the most frequently documented form of use in Syria. This includes planning for, and conducting, tactical operations at a local level. In the Syrian Army example above, this might include evaluating mobility corridors into the neighborhood, identifying cover and concealment for (and from) enemy fire, finding high ground, or identifying major geographic obstacles.

In this role, its use is characterized by the imagery’s high-fidelity and recent age, when compared to alternatives like pre-war civilian maps. With most resolution measured in meters rather than 10s of meters, most coverage of Syria allows observers to pick out tactically significant details in the landscape. This includes trees, alleyways, or small buildings. At the same time, imagery that is typically a year or more old can’t be used for real time force analysis (e.g. to estimate the number of tanks defending a government airbase prior to assaulting it).

In March 2013, a brigade affiliated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) prepared for an attack in southern Syria by using Google Earth in a pre-mission briefing. With an area of interest spanning about 500 m, the commander used an overhead projector to point out specific buildings. Some of these were identified with place-markers, indicating that the program was being used as a rudimentary geospatial information system (GIS) by combining the imagery with information gathered from other sources (e.g. direct observation). The importance of integrating other sources to correct for the imagery’s age is illustrated by the fact that the imagery in question dated from 2011, making it upwards of two years old at the time of use.

AG_Moataz Bella Brigs_Dael_03.28 (1)

The FSA-affiliated Moataz Bellah Brigade prepares for an operation near Dael in Southern Syria, March 2013.

Echoing one of the earliest uses, reported by the British in Iraq around 2007, Google Earth is also used to generate high-quality printed maps for field use. After Jabhat al-Nusra (JaN) was observed using just such a map during an attack on Aleppo’s central prison in February 2014, some suggested that they were receiving foreign intelligence support. However, it has been confidently assessed that the map in question was generated with GE.


Jabhat al-Nusra prepares for an attack on Aleppo’s Central Prison, February 2014.

Among government users, a similar usage pattern has been documented. Specifically, Google Earth is used as a rudimentary GIS that is able to combine detailed imagery with user-friendly annotation tools that can be used without specialized training (a notorious shortcoming of actual GIS programs). In documenting the government’s clearance operations in Damascus over the summer of 2013, ANNA News showed a few different examples of the way Google Earth was employed. [3] On a laptop, the GIS aspect becomes more apparent as different icons are used to denote certain elements.

ANNA_News Roundup_08.30

Footage from a daily news summary, published by ANNA on August 30, 2013. The screenshot shows the contested Mamouniyeh and Jobar districts in east Damascus.

In a printed example from the same period, each individual house had been marked with an icon and numbered, likely as part of a standardized reference system. In another instance, pictured below, a commander briefs junior officers at a staging point immediately prior to an assault into the Qaboun neighborhood. Rather than drawing an approximate map in the sand as he might of in the past, the commander was able to bring up his smartphone and point out the exact attack route to those huddled around him.

ANNA_Northward Attack (8) - Copy

A field commander briefs subordinates prior to a mechanized push into the Qaboun neighborhood in east Damascus during summer 2013.

The third use – directing artillery fire – is far more focused in scope. In this use, Google Earth’s advantage is that it allows the gunner to find his bearing (range and azimuth) with far greater precision than a regular map, thanks to Google Earth’s use of actual imagery rather than vector representation. Just as importantly, the task itself is easier with Google Earth thanks to its intuitive toolset. A related technique is to use a tablet or smartphone loaded with a compass and inclinometer app to help with the actual laying of the piece itself.

Known examples among anti-government forces in Syria include the Islamic Front and the FSA, who have been seen using it with mortars and short-range rocket artillery. In Iraq, pro-government fighters from the Imam Ali Brigade have also been seen using a map equipped tablet to align mortar and rocket fire.

107mm_Kataib Imam Ali_03-10-2015_f

A fighter from the Imam Ali Brigade uses a tablet to aim a 107 mm rocket launcher in March 2015.

Concluding Remarks
Google Earth’s importance isn’t that it provides high-quality imagery per se, that’s existed for years in the form of aerial surveys and satellite-based sensors. Its biggest impact is that it has made that imagery available for free to anyone with an internet connection. In short, it’s democratized image intelligence.

In the classical model described at the start, the biggest challenge to sub-state actors is the initial collection and concentration of data, if only for the reason that satellites and surveillance aircraft are expensive. Google is quick to point out that their imagery comes from commercial providers like DigitalGlobe and could be purchased anyway. Although – strictly speaking – this is true, this option would prove too costly for most fighters, to say nothing of the difference in real-world usability.

Here, Google Earth solves the problem by distributing the burden of collecting and concentrating data to the everyday user who creates a market incentive for Google to provide the product. That this process has nothing to do with the fortune of any one user in Syria is its greatest strength. Piggybacking on global telecom networks insulates Google Earth from disruption since Assad isn’t about to start sending Su-24s over Silicon Valley. Furthermore, even inside Syria these channels remain part of the social and economic structures such that shutting them down entirely remains unlikely.

Yet, as powerful as such programs are, they aren’t a panacea. The imagery is still too old to threaten the value of a live-feed, or even imagery that is weeks or months old. In Syria at least, the Government still holds the advantage when it comes to airborne surveillance.

Google itself represents another potential bottleneck. For example, US law prohibits high-quality imagery of Israel from being sold, which limits what Google can offer. Similarly, Google occasionally finds itself facing demands from national governments to censor certain areas, such as in the wake of the 2008 Mumbai attack. [4] At the moment this risk is largely speculative.

More than any technical aspect though, the image is only one part of the whole intelligence cycle. The process of turning an image into IMINT still relies on the analyst behind the screen to draw meaning from it. For every imprecise image and for every inaccurate map, there exists – in the words of James Der Derian – “…a much larger model of errors, the universe of bad map-readers, mistaking the goat path for a road, a church spire for a missile silo, a pharmaceutical plant for a chemical warfare factory.”

[1] Google Earth is used here as shorthand for all similar programs – such as Bing Maps – that provide commercial satellite imagery for free via desktop or browser apps. Google Earth is, by leaps and bounds, the most commonly documented of these programs.
[2] The example here is purely hypothetical and does not claim to represent the actual practices of the Syrian Army, which may be far different. For example, the tactical commander may not himself have authority over surveillance units, meaning that he would actually have to go up the chain of command, rather than down.
[3] These operations documented by ANNA were explored in depth by the author in a November 2013 post at OSIMINT. Although the website is now defunct, it is preserved at “Syrian Civil War Archive
[4] See the relevant hyperlinks in each example for cases where Google faced pressure from national governments following attacks. See also this list of satellite map images with missing or unclear data.

This entry was posted in English, Galen Wright, General Knowledge, India, Intelligence, Iran, Syria, Yemen.

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