OSINT researchers can easily utilize Google Maps tools to verify information and establish suspect timelines. But do their benefits to investigators outweigh their risk to the user?
For years, social media companies like Facebook have come under increased pressure for the amount of publicly shared and openly accessible user data available for search on their platforms. Companies have taken various steps to address this, with some notable examples.
In June of 2019, Facebook deactivated most of their graph search functionality, in a move which was intended to increase the privacy of users but which also left many investigators without the essential tools needed to perform their research.
Google’s expansive location tracking via Android has been widely criticized, and although the company has taken steps in recent weeks to secure the privacy of its users on the Google platform, a major threat to Google’s user security still exists: the users themselves.
In many cases, these users are enabled by app and device features which encourage participation and the submission of content. One of the biggest potential security vulnerabilities to an individual user, and thus one of the most useful tools for an OSINT researcher to verify information with, is Google Maps.
Like other platforms, Google Maps provide users with the ability not only to upload media and other content directly to a location-based GIS map, but also to place text reviews at various businesses and geo-locations around the world.
This comparatively open flow of information on Google Maps is both a great benefit for researchers, who can access geotagged, geolocated, and roughly dated information uploaded by individuals, but also a risk to users and organizations who don’t take proper precautions when uploading content. There are relatively simple steps behind securing most content on Google Maps, but certain security settings must be engaged by the user directly.
In the below guide, I will explore the practical application of user-created photosopheres, platform-generated street views, and organizational content management policies towards both OSINT research work and individual security measures. Much of the content will center around Syria, where the majority of my work and research has been directed. Due to Google Maps’ monopolization of online GIS mapping platforms and GPS providers, the service is available nearly everywhere in the world where Android is the primary platform of use – which is to say, nearly everywhere in the world. This ubiquity of the Android platform means Google Maps displays consistent results across much of the world, but will show much larger amounts of information in countries with higher smartphone access.
If you’d like to view all street views and photospheres in a given area, click on the yellow street view icon and view every available image.
Click on the yellow street view icon in the bottom right hand toolbar to see every available image in a given area of focus.
Depending on the area of coverage, you should start to see street views highlighted, along with a few photospheres.
Blue lines and circles highlight where street view and photospheres are available.
Make sure to zoom in to view all available images, as Google Maps condenses them into single overlapped points if they’re too close to each other. As you zoom in, each level should reveal more and more imagery.
Blue circles show user-created photospheres in Aleppo city, Syria.
If you’re looking to find local images, street views, and photospheres in a specific location, you can individually click on locations marked on the map. Clicking on these locations will give you access to restaurants, tagged buildings, or parks, and allow you to find ‘hidden’ photospheres which have been attached to specific areas (or possibly covered by newer ones.)
To see this information for the area you are viewing, you can also use Google’s geographical sectioning to see all images associated with a given area. The area you select will increase and decrease in size based on how far in or out you’re zoomed on the location in question. To get this process to work, you need to place your view on the general area you’d like to analyze, and then right-click the spot.
The process is a bit cryptic, but this action will give you an option that says, “What’s here?”. Clicking this will place a pin on the map, and open an infobox.
Clicking this window (don’t click the decimal coordinates) will display Google’s categorization of the area, along with any media uploaded in that area, including photospheres.
Photos associated with the highlighted area are shown in the left info pane. Images with a circular arrow in the bottom left hand corner are photospheres.
This process is useful if you’re looking to study specific areas and want to view all the available areas tagged in a town. While exploring, you may also come across photospheres and street views that don’t work: these are usually tag artifacts from deleted or now-hidden images.
In areas with high traffic or where Google regularly sends street view cars, you may also be able to view historical street view images. Although not a consistently reliable tool, it is useful for checking areas that may have gone under construction or recent development.
Over the next several sections, I will explore these tools in application to multiple unique case studies, including: locally uploaded activity in Al-Byah village, ship activity off the coast of Baniyas port, and operational security failings from members of various NGO groups based in Damascus.
Case study #1: Al-Byah, or the only village in Syria with street view
If you’ve ever used Google Maps, you’ve likely used street view to view your city or to explore local businesses and areas you may want to visit. There’s also a good chance you’ve used it to explore cities you’ve never been to, and Google Earth Pro allows you to view historical street view data along with recent street views. This is often useful in large cities and developed regions, where Google can send a street view vehicle to take photographs. But this isn’t always the case: users themselves can upload street view imagery directly to Google Maps, without needing to work for Google or sign any sort of paperwork.
User-uploaded street view and photospheres in Nusaybin, Turkey.
While Google employees contractors have contributed the majority of street view uploads to Google Maps, It is still possible for users themselves to upload street view images. The feature itself is relatively well-hidden and requires more input than traditional photospheres, but sometimes results in users uploading imagery to the internet which Google would otherwise be unable to upload themselves.
The small Christian village of al-Byah, south of Hama city, is an agricultural village of 3,000 people which saw no fighting during the civil war but which lost men who fought for the SAA and SSNP. Al-Byah is the only village in Syria with street view available. Although parts of the village have been broken into photospheres, users are still able to move visually through the village.
Google Maps view of al-Byah village, south of Hama city.
Street view image uploaded by Tarek al-Ebrahem, who runs social media platforms for the village. [Source]
The village itself has an active Facebook page, and the local Orthodox church maintains a page where service and events are live-streamed. Like many other villages which maintain pages like this, al-Byah’s social media pages cover everyday events like marriages, price of crops, arrivals to Europe and Canada through refugee programs, and many other local announcements. Although by far less important than a major city in Syria or elsewhere, being able to view all aspects of a small town village like al-Byah provides an excellent insight into rural life in a conflict-impacted area.
Case study #2: An onboard view of sea activity near Baniyas
Street view’s use as a tool to study areas from “on the ground” is invaluable, especially for research done remotely or through social media. More interesting for tracking potential areas of interest are photospheres, a feature where users can upload a 360-degree image of the location they’re in and upload it directly to Google Maps. While often unpredictable, you can occasonally some unique locations and areas of interest..
While generally extremely accurate, it is possible to spoof someone’s photosphere location, or for technical interference and GPS issues to inaccurately pin a photosphere on the global map . These inaccurately pinned photospheres usually end up in oceans and bodies of water, and you can generally tell if a photosphere tag is correct or not based on the type of tag being applied – for example, if an image shows an inland construction site tagged to the middle of the ocean.
However, not all locations at sea are glitches, and ones found near coastlines are often accurate. If any land is visible, the precise location of the photosphere can be double-checked using Google Maps itself, and if the sun is visible, a researcher can also confirm roughly what time of day and time of year the photo was taken.
The blue circles are user uploaded photospheres seen with the street view tool.
Snapshot of a photosphere uploaded from a ship headed towards Latakia. [Source]
The above photosphere was shared from a ship moving toward Baniyas in the Latakia governorate of Syria. Looking around the photophere, we can pick up some clues as to the ship’s identity, but most importantly, we can see what looks like Baniyas in the distance, confirming that the location is likely correct and not inaccurately pinned by an erroneous upload.
Looking on board the ship, we can see what appears to be its vessel name, the “Daran Qgseidon”, on various safety equipment. But the equipment doesn’t seem to match any activity history of the ship, and open-source vessel tracking databases currently have no available information on the ship. The personal profile of the user who uploaded the images seems to indicate he has worked for a few years in shipping, and recently checked in to a port in the UAE.
Although many ships heading into Syria are tracked on services like MarineTraffic, much of the activity around Baniyas seems to be untraceable using services like this, as ships moving through this area simply don’t report their locations due to the area being used for nominally illegal ship-to-ship transfers of oil from Iranian vessels. Although we have limited resources for publicly available, high-resolution open-source satellite imagery in this region, we do have some which are good enough for possibly narrowing down ships in the area.
An unidentified ship, slightly east of the location of the uploaded image on the 21st of March, 2020. [Source]
What appears to be a ship-to-ship transfer off the coast of Baniyas on the 26th of March, 2020. [Source]
We can then use Suncalc to get an estimate of the time the image would have been uploaded to Google Maps, as we can see the sun in the image along with the ship’s relative position.
A Suncalc estimate position of a ship for the 26th of March, 2020. [Source]
While we can’t determine the exact identity of the ship, we’ve gotten some important clues which, alongside other points of verification, may possibly allow us to identify what ship this is. The photosphere indicates the ship left some time during sunset, so these ships, if they had gone into Baniyas, could have possibly left later the same day after dropping off or loading up on whichever cargo they were billed to transport. This information can be combined with publicly accessible marine records and other publicly available satellite imagery in order to narrow down the search for the ship’s identity. For open-source investigators, particularly those tracking marine activity, there is a significant benefit to the use of these tools in unison with other methods of verification.
Case study #3: Ensuring organizational privacy and proper OPSEC for employees using social media
Most people uploading images of their travels and personal lives to Google Maps likely have nothing to worry about, even when working in sensitive roles. Even the simplest OPSEC, like staggering uploads, ensuring appropriate timing between reviews, and ensuring the details you provide publicly are limited enough to obscure your actions or location, is enough to prevent most people from using such publicly accessible information to find you or track your movements.
Publicly available and user-uploaded information has long been a problem across many apps and platforms, and Google Maps is no exception. The biggest added threat to user uploads on Google Maps is the platform’s geotagging functionality.
A photo tagged to the location of an NGO in Damascus.
In a publicly accessible image, an employee of an international NGO can be seen seated at his desk in his company’s Damascus offices. Behind him is a map of Syria and Lebanon, produced by Gizimap. He has apparently marked up various factions, points of territorial control, military corridors, and many other details.
Image of a receipt from a restaurant.
The image was uploaded in early 2018. This uploader also tracked his visits to many different areas of Syria, tracking many locations that are either hard to reach or impossible for the average person in Syria, let alone journalists or researchers, to get to.
Finding these sorts of accounts is relatively easy. People review places they live in, work in, or visit on a daily basis, and those working in the military and government are no exception. Mapping public check-ins is integral for a variety of open-source resource efforts, including network mapping for those involved in war crimes.
Certain places, like Incirlik airbase in Turkey, will often have a wide range of reviews from those working in NATO member countries. Lounges, restaurants, and commissaries are all marked, and many photos of building interiors and and sometimes the surrounding area can be found by looking through tagged images.
Google Maps contributor profile for a Head of NATO’s Section Mob CIS and Cyber Defence.
Going through the reviews for the commissary, it’s not hard to find active military personnel, sometimes listed with their full names. Depending on user activity, a lot of interesting personal details can be pulled from these sources, and social media accounts can be found for additional active research on individuals.
While one is not able to track down the exact current location of the contributor, it has become increasingly easy to track information on users who do regularly upload to Google Maps, which can be used to find the user when paired with other sources from separate social media platforms they may use.
With the use of a Google Maps contributor ID, you may be able to find associated Google products attached to an individual user account. These contributor IDs were much more powerful when Google’s social network, Google+, was still active, as these contributor IDs were connected to Google+ accounts, and could be used to find other Google products associated with the Contributor ID. In rare cases, this is still possible if a user’s ID was shared on other websites in a link to their profile, but without public access to Google+ or the existence of an archive, this would be difficult to use in most cases.
Case study #4: Documentation, exploration, and discovery in hard-to-reach areas
While many concerns exist for privacy and security for people uploading content to google maps, it still exists as a priceless tool for researchers covering hard to reach areas, conflict zones, or only doing work that cover large areas of the world.
Image uploaded in Tal Abyad of a Euphrates Softshell turtle. [Source]
Using the streetview feature of Google Maps, ASPI researcher Nathan Ruser was able to spot a geolocated sighting of an endangered species of softshell turtle. If the upload location is accurate, This sighting makes it possibly 1 of 10 such recorded sightings. We can also use this methodology for other environmental and ecological tracking efforts: for example, to secure an on-the-ground view of certain areas in order to confirm water levels or conditions of dams and other structures.
United Nations refugee tents being used for a seating area next to a river. [Source]
In places like Syria, where aid is often misused or stolen, streetview also gives us an opportunity to track the abuse of aid. It may provide exact coordinates to where aid is being misused, allowing researchers to potentially follow up on these issues – especially in the case of the United Nations, which moves aid into Syria under the control of the highly exploitative Assad regime. Many Google Maps uploads to this extent generally don’t focus on the aid itself, but abuse and theft of aid being so prevalent, it’s not hard to stumble upon these kinds of images.
The outside of a roadside gravesite, possibly of some religious importance. [Source]
An interior view of the grave site. [Source]
With a sharp eye, Google Maps photos and photospheres give us insight into an entire world of local expertise. Areas generally off limits due to political affiliation, war, or cultural boundaries are suddenly opened up to open-source research.
But what about securing your own privacy on the Google Maps platform?
Hiding contributions and user activity
If you’re currently using Google Maps, you have a couple of simple options to keep using it securely without completely deleting your account or switching over to an anonymous account. If you’d like to maintain your reviews publicly – just in case your 1-star review is the only thing standing between your neighbours and an outbreak of food poisoning – you can change your name and photo in your Google account settings. This will change your name on all products currently associated with your account, however, so you may not want to do this as a first resort.
The other option is to set your profile to private, so only your close friends and followers can see it. This is done by clicking the three-line menu button in the top left hand corner.
Then select “Your Contributions”.
Then turn on the “Restricted profile” option. This will hide your profile from public view, and hide any associated reviews on the map from public view on your profile, but will still allow people to view your contributions individually with the source hyperlinks, or if they find them on their own by virtue of accessing the world map.
The only way to fully hide your activity on Google Maps is to delete each review or your profile.
Special thanks to Wim Zwijnenburg of PAX for contributions and edits.