The world seems to have taken notice of the level of details services like Google Maps offer on an everyday basis. A Twitter account supporting the Ukrainian forces recently shared some images of Russian military establishments that were in public view on Google Maps.
⚡️GOOGLE MAPS ВІДКРИВ ДОСТУП ДО ВІЙСЬКОВИХ ТА СТРАТЕГІЧНИХ ОБ’ЄКТІВ РОСІЇ.— Armed Forces 🇺🇦 (@ArmedForcesUkr) April 18, 2022
Тепер кожен може побачити різноманітні російські пускові установки, шахти міжконтинентальних балістичних ракет, командні пункти та секретні полігони з роздільною здатністю близько до 0,5 метра на піксель. pic.twitter.com/i75wR8Efwo
As the caption reads, Google has opened access to Russian military and strategic facilities. The tweet was probably an attempt at virtue signaling that Google had taken a stance against Russian aggression. However, as a Google spokesperson told The Verge, the information was available in the public domain well before the Ukraine conflict.
Military establishments in the public eye
The blurring of images has been a rampant practice on Google Maps to protect the privacy of individuals after Street View was launched. In the case of military establishments, this practice has been extended. As The Verge points out, the French Air Force's base 705 has a pixelated appearance on the platform.
At times users have spotted upcoming aircraft at these sites or sometimes even when they are flying while using Google Maps. The U.S. Air Force's Nellis Air Force Base does not get similar treatment, nor does the infamous Area 51. While that might seem like an aberration, it is more of a policy at Google to keep as much as possible in the public domain, and that includes Russian airbases too.
The Twitter account isn't an official handle of the Ukrainian forces, so it may have gotten excited at the prospect of being able to see strategic Russian destinations in the public domain.
Needless to say but military agencies have access to better imagery of adversaries anyways and do not rely on Google Maps for intelligence inputs. It might help open-source intelligence experts determine the actual losses the Russian Air Force has faced as a result of the invasion. At the beginning of the conflict, we had reported how traffic data from Google Maps also served as an indicator of military movement, even before President Putin announced them publicly.
With regards to Google taking a stance, it has already done so by pausing ad sales in Russia, cutting off access to Google Pay in the country, and banning Russian state media from advertising on YouTube, The Verge reported.