Space data companies such as Planet Labs and Maxar Technologies have begun restricting satellite images of the Gaza Strip as Israel initiates a ground assault. Over the past month, these companies allowed news outlets to track the destruction caused by Israeli airstrikes in Gaza. However, after the New York Times reported Israeli tank positions based on these images, San Francisco-based Planet Labs heavily restricted and obscured parts of the images over the Gaza Strip for many users, including news organizations.
One possibility for this restriction is that the imagery has the potential to reveal information that the US government does not want to be made public. Defense analyst Todd Harrison suggests that the US government, being a lucrative customer of these companies, may have requested such a change to protect its ally’s interests.
US companies are prohibited from releasing satellite imagery of Israel at a higher resolution than what is available from foreign sources under the 1997 Kyl-Bingaman Amendment. This amendment aims to safeguard Israel’s interests. Until 2020, the resolution of imagery was restricted to 2 meters. However, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration allowed the release of imagery at a resolution of 40 centimeters in 2020. Most companies collect satellite data at higher resolutions. For instance, Umbra, a California-based space data company, collects data at a resolution of 25 centimeters.
Joe Morrison, VP of commercial product at Umbra, explains that even if imagery of Gaza, Lebanon, or Egypt includes a corner of Israel, companies treat the entire scene as subject to the restrictions imposed by the Kyl-Bingaman Amendment. This cautious approach may be due to the unpredictability of unintended consequences in areas of active conflict.
This restriction on satellite images contrasts with the situation during the early days of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, when commercial satellite companies provided powerful images and insights into the development of the conflict on the ground. Maxar, for instance, released satellite images of Ukraine at a resolution of 30 centimeters, which offered clear visibility.