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Who to Trust, Google or the Russian MoD? A Guide to Verifying Google Earth Satellite Image Dates

June 5, 2015

By Aric Toler

Этот пост также доступен на русском языке в переводе @Mortis_Banned

Bellingcat recently published an in-depth investigation finding that the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) fabricated and misrepresented their satellite photographs in a July 21, 2014 press conference, immediately following the July 17 downing of MH17. The most obvious and compelling evidence of this investigation was in the clear differences in the landscape between Russian MoD satellite images–supposedly taken in mid-July–and the publicly available images taken in the week before and after the downing of MH17. While Bellingcat provided a guide for accessing this imagery in Google Earth, a question that has arisen is in the accuracy of these dates on Google Earth. As described in this guide, the findings of Bellingcat regarding the July 21 Russian MoD satellite images will be reaffirmed, along with a walk-through for anyone to verify Google Earth imagery via free and precisely dated image previews on Digital Globe.

The Russian MoD satellite images under consideration show a Ukrainian base with Buk anti-aircraft systems at the coordinates of 48.098403, 37.754424, just north of Donetsk. While the Russian MoD claims that these photos are from mid-July, a comparison with Google Earth satellite photos dated in May, early July, and late July show that this cannot be true.

These comparisons of the field and vegetation patterns to the immediate west and east of the Ukrainian base are damning, in that they clearly show that the Russian MoD satellite photos were taken in June, and not July. However, a question that has arisen is how to verify the exact dates of the Google Earth satellite photos. This verification can be done through checking the previews of imagery from Digital Globe, which supplies Google Earth imagery at a higher resolution for Google Satellite. This simple guide demonstrates how easily this imagery can be checked by anyone using Google Earth.

Much of the confusion over the correct date of satellite photos is from how Google Earth handles the dating of their satellite imagery, where “strips” of images are overlaid over different captured days. The patchwork nature of the variant dated imagery is not visible unless you specifically turn it on with Google Earth, where it appears as such:

strips

Each strip represents the most recent satellite image up to the date selected on Google Earth (in this case, it was April 26, 2015). We can determine the specific date of each strip by zooming in, which is the date determined in each Google Earth satellite snapshot in the Bellingcat report in the Russian MoD satellite photos. Instead of just relying on the Google Earth date, we can also check the publicly available image previews on Digital Earth to verify–without any doubt–the correct date of each satellite image.

From the Digital Globe’s ImageFinder page, we can input coordinates to find the historical satellite imagery for a site.

globe

After selecting “Enter Coordinates,” you can enter the coordinates of the base just north of Donetsk: 48.098403, 37.754424. I selected a 2 square-kilometer radius, but you can do any parameters you would like.

coords

 

After clicking “Continue,” something like this will show up, displaying the area that is selected by the selected parameters. Click “Search” to display all available imagery. Be prepared to wait a while–it can sometimes take a bit for a window to pop up after clicking “Search.”

globe_search

A window will now pop up (check your ad blocking plug-ins and pop-up window settings!) showing all available imagery for the selected coordinates with your parameters. Click “Acquisition Date” (red box) to sort the available images by the date the images were taken.

globe_acquisition

From that, we get the following list of images taken in the past year with varying angles, cloud cover, image band type, and so on. Select “View” for your desired satellite image to find the free preview available for the image, so that we can verify that the Google Satellite image is the same as the Digital Globe image, thus verifying the capture date.

globe_results

After clicking “View,” a window like this will come up, showing the satellite image along with its metadata. You want to re-size the image to “max available resolution,” and then save the image so that it is easier to examine the finer details. This particular image is for July 24, exactly a week after the shoot-down of MH17.

globe_max

Be sure to save the image to examine it more closely.

globe_save

Now, we can finally conduct a close comparison of the Digital Globe image and Google Earth satellite image to make sure they are the same, thus verifying the date of the Google Satellite image. The previews of the Digital Globe imagery will be a much lower resolution and quality than the Google Satellite version, but the key features that have changed since May and June will be visible.

ge_7.24.14

Google Earth Satellite, July 24, 2014 (UTC)

globe_7242014

Digital Globe, July 24, 2014, ID: 10300100333BC100

We can do the same thing for July 2, 2014:

ge_july2 globe_july2

And May 30, 2014:

ge_may30 globe_may30

Though you may need to squint your eyes a bit, it is undeniable that the Google Satellite images are these same as the Digital Globe images taken on the same day. Thus, we can put to rest any notions that the dates in the Bellingcat report in the Russian Ministry of Defense were incorrect or estimated.

Just to recap, take another look at red and yellow-boxed features of the vegetation and field in the the Russian Ministry of Defense’s satellite photo that was supposedly taken in mid-July, as compared with the (now double verified) dates of the Google Satellite images:

Russia MoD 2
An example of incorrectly dated imagery used by the Russian Ministry of Defence

An example of incorrectly dated imagery used by the Russian Ministry of Defence

Unless a patch of vegetation disappeared, reappeared, then disappeared again, the Russian Ministry of Defense falsely presented their satellite images. Their satellite images were taken in June, not on July, as they told the world while accusing Ukraine of shooting down MH17 just four days after the tragedy took place.

Aric Toler

Aric Toler has written with Bellingcat since 2015 and currently leads the Eurasia/Eastern Europe team. Along with his research into topics in the former Soviet Union, he organizes and leads Bellingcat's Russian-language workshops for journalists and researchers. He graduated with an MA in Slavic Languages & Literatures from the University of Kansas in 2013, focusing on Russian literature and intellectual history. After graduation, he worked for two years as an intelligence specialist in the private sector. If you have any questions, or have a story idea related to eastern Europe or Eurasia, you can contact him at arictoler@bellingcat.com

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230 Comments

  1. Scitoz

    The problem that exists is that the various alphabet agencies of the USA have been extremely instrumental in providing the seeding money to actually set up these companies who provide the information being used in this and other arguments. In-Q-Tel is one of these companies and there is a whole range of more hidden hidden front companies who have destroyed any clear independent value to source documents and sources that have not been tainted by an information control process that is designed to keep information hidden..

    It has to be seen that for every single site that professes one view there are others that provide a counter argument and thus the game of disinformation is played to muddy the waters of those sources who have no other purpose but to keep the truth from being seen and understood. Questioning the status quo requires the evaluation of a range of sources and a trend of determining the past occurrences of integrity and open reporting subsequently proven to be correct. The MSM and indeed bloggers are becoming synonymous with the need to separate the ‘wheat from the chaff’ and the spread of propaganda which was exposed in the Church Committee on the late 70s where the Senate Intelligence Committee had an open questioning of the CIA and Operation Mockingbird was seen as the CIA paying media people for positive stories and indeed anything that was provided to them this breaking the independence of the ‘Fourth Estate’.

    http://www.echtekrant.be/boek/NSA/googlefacebook.pdf

    https://medium.com/insurge-intelligence/how-the-cia-made-google-e836451a959e

    https://www.corbettreport.com/meet-in-q-tel-the-cias-venture-capital-firm-preview/

    Reply
    • Mad Dog

      Wow, such valuable links….not.

      First one is not even vaguely incriminating, since it mainly talks about the way SNS can be used to garner information that had to be tracked down physically before. The In-Q-Tel accusations really don’t hold water in terms of your above argument. They are generally a technology garnering entity looking for stuff based on CIA needs. Nothing really to do with Google Earth, which picked up the Key Hole system and opened it to the public. The second link is that one man forum run by a single editor forum, not without a bit of controversy. He is fond of pushing the thought that “These strategies have been incubated, if not dictated, by a secret network inside and beyond the Pentagon.”, using the Highland Forum as one example…..dreary, as well as a bit off center on evaluating the workings and influence of the Forum. And the last one is another single person effort and the article makes a number of tenuous allegations about the relationship of In-Q-Tel and the operations of Google.
      So, what does this have to do with the information provided here. Besides sowing doubt about the veracity of the info, can you point to any kind of manipulation by Google Earth/In-Q-Tel/CIA/Highland Forums? Where is the smoking gun in this matter.

      Reply

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