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Searching the Earth: Essential Geolocation Tools for Verification

July 25, 2015

By Eliot Higgins

As verification and open source investigation techniques and methodologies have been developed over the last few years various tools and platforms have been used to access the information that makes this kind of work possible. This includes pre-existing tools such as Google Earth and new tools developed over the last few years. In this article we’ll examine some of these tools, and the different uses they have in the verification and investigation process.

Googling Earth

For many investigations Google Earth has become a key tool for verifying images and videos, playing a key role in the process of geolocation. Geolocation is a verification method where landmarks and features visible in photographs or videos can be compared to other images, frequently satellite imagery, to confirm the location an image was recorded. At its most basic, Google Earth allows access to satellite imagery from across the globe, a key resource in geolocation. It also has a number of other useful features that can also play a useful role in verification.

One feature that is often overlooked is historical imagery, which can be easily found under the “view” menu. By turning this on the user is presented with a slider that allows them to change the displayed image to any historical image available on Google Earth. This is useful for a number of reasons; for example, the position of the satellite when it records an image might give you one view of a side of a building, and other images take at different times might give you a different view of the building, which is useful when you’re trying to match the features of a building in a photograph or video to a satellite image. The below example shows the same location on two different dates, providing a view of two different sides of the buildings.

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Another useful feature is the “Photos” layer, which displays photos from a number of sources, but most importantly Panoramio. Panoramio is a website where users can upload geotagged photographs, and these photographs are visible on Google Earth, making a useful source of ground level images of locations you might be interested in examining in more detail.

The View from the Street

Another source of ground level images are street view images available on Google Maps and Google Earth, and also on the Russian website Yandex Maps. While many people are familiar with Google Street View, Yandex Maps is less well known, but has its own collection of street view imagery, much of which is in locations not yet available on Google Street View.

These images can be hugely useful for geolocation, but it’s also important to consider the date street view images were recorded. For example, in this recent piece, verifying the location where a MH17 related video was recorded, Yandex Maps imagery showed the location in question absent of the billboards that were visible in the video being geolocated. However, Google Earth satellite imagery showed the billboard were a recent addition to the area, and the Yandex Maps imagery was recorded before the billboards were constructed.

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By comparing other images from Yandex Maps with other information about the area (for example, a recently constructed church), it was possible to verify the date of the Yandex Maps imagery. This demonstrates another overlooked facet of geolocation and verification, it’s not only the case that the image you’re investigating needs to be verified, but it’s also valuable to verify the reference image as well. Something like a geotag can be inaccurate or changed, so this is one of the things that needs to be verified as part of a robust verification process.

A World of Geotags

Recently new platforms have been developed that makes geotags even more useful as part of the verification process. Yomapic is a free website that allows for geographical searches for geotagged images of the popular Russian social media site VKontakte and Instagram. In the below example Yomapic displays images posted from the Islamic State controlled town of Raqqa in the last week.

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An interesting feature of Yomapic is it’s possible to select an individual account by clicking on the username, displaying all images on the account, geotagged or not. The below image shows on Instagram user as they travel from the Seychelles to Kenya, then onto Turkey and finally Raqqa, Syria.

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An alternative to Yomapic is EchoSec, which includes many more social media sites in its searches, including Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Panoramio, and Flickr. It also has a date range search, which allows for searches around specific date ranges, which is very useful when investigating past events.

While the obvious use for Yomapic and EchoSec is looking for posts related to specific events in an area, it’s also useful in another way. When geolocating images it might not be possible to find street view imagery or Panoramio photographs, but thanks to Yomapic and EchoSec it’s possible to see if anyone in the local area may have posted an Instagram photo or YouTube video showing the location you’re interested in. This adds to the range of option you have when searching for reference images as part of any geolocation, and by combining these tools it makes efforts to verify content far more effective.

Eliot Higgins

Eliot Higgins is the founder of Bellingcat and the Brown Moses Blog. Eliot focuses on the weapons used in the conflict in Syria, and open source investigation tools and techniques.

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2 Comments

  1. boggled

    It is amazing how much information is available to the public now that only government agencies or private investigators and hackers knew in the past.
    I am glad to see the innovation of minds out there.

    The public can almost now become their own private investigation body.
    The hard thing about this is what is considered public and what should be considered private.
    Privacy is a function we all expect, but we post items that can be geolocated.
    The privacy function discussion is an important one as the Earth becomes more of a global society.

    What should governments be able to collect openly and what demands a warrant, what should the public be able to check up on government and media, what should schools be able to investigate about student applicants, what should remain private?

    Way to go innovative programmers of the world in giving the public these tools to check up on government as well as governments to allow this information to be fact checked.
    However.
    Thank you Mr. Higgins for sharing the knowledge about these available tools.
    Someone will inevitably design inventions and make them available to the public continuously, but where should the line be drawn?
    Do you control out of control witch hunts by making these public tools a paid for item?
    Which I kind of think advertisers utilize already, they pay for that info and write programs to analyze it.

    Or is it available to all and the line between privacy and public information get blurred even more?
    Better minds than mind can debate that philosophy and what is best for a global society.

    Should in this internet age of everyone sharing information, should anything utilizing an internet connection be considered public domain and we evolve to that reality?
    Or are we already at that stage of evolution and we just refuse to accept that reality that there is no privacy?

    Fare thee well

    Reply
  2. CH

    Google Earth and Yandex provide excellent tools for geolocating, but it remains difficult to prove the time and date of an image.

    Time/date can be checked for consistency with weather conditions. Weather satellite photos are archived and publicly available. Polar orbit weather satellites pass over most of the global every hour or two. Geostationary ones have limited coverage (US data is good) but may scan more often. An example of retrieving original data here:
    http://imgur.com/a/zE91Y
    The Russian satellite data server here looks convenient but I have had language problems using it: http://moscow.planeta.smislab.ru/geocover_v4/planeta.sht
    Maybe there is an equivalent service in English somewhere in the West.

    Another idea for spot-checking weather conditions: look for home or commercial solar electric installations. Some of these have publically accessible archive data like this: http://egauge20583.egaug.es/ this tells exactly when the sun is shining and not.

    Reply

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