You’d think in the digital age that no country would dare Photoshop satellite images and then use those images to blame a different country for shooting down a plane that resulted in all 298 passengers being killed. Yet that’s exactly what Russia did to point the finger of blame at Ukraine for downing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, according to forensic analysis of publicly available satellite images.
On July 17, 2014, MH17, a Boeing 777, was shot down over eastern Ukraine; days later, the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) held a press conference, blaming Ukraine for shooting down MH17 and releasing six satellite images as proof.
Bellingcat, a group of independent journalists, launched an investigation; on May 31 the group reported that the Russian’s claims “are a clear attempt by the Russian government to deceive the public, global community, and the families of the Flight MH17 victims.” Bellingcat released a report covering forensic analysis of satellite images (pdf). The group analyzed public images available through Google Earth before concluding:
On 21 July 2014, the Russian Ministry of Defense presented digitally modified and falsely dated satellite images to the international public in order to implicate the Ukrainian army in the downing of MH17. Later, on 1 August 2014, the MoD again published digitally altered and falsely dated satellite imagery with the release of Picture 5-analytics.
The Russians used the satellite image they numbered as “3” to show Ukrainian missile launchers on the roof of a military base; they claimed the image was taken on July 14, three days before MH17 was shot down.
But during forensic analysis, the investigators compared the image with Google Earth satellite imagery taken at different dates. After analyzing vegetation and soil structures like plowed fields to come up with a date for image 3, the group said the image was not taken on July 14, three days before the crash, but at least a month earlier. “Picture 3 can therefore undoubtedly be dated to a period falling between 30 May 2014 and 19 June 2014.”
The Russians claimed satellite image “4” was taken on July 17, three days after image “3,” and on the date MH17 was shot down. It shows one of the Ukrainian missile launchers missing because, according to the Russian military, Ukraine used it to down the plane.
This time investigators analyzed oil slicks and soil structures to determine image 4 was taken between June 1 and June 18, 2014, not on the day of the crash. Additionally, the metadata for picture 4 showed that it was processed with Adobe Photoshop CS5. The image was then scaled down and saved as a new image with a compression quality of 75%; the investigators believe “it is highly probable that clouds were digitally added on the left and right sides of the image, which obscured details that could have been used for additional comparisons with historical imagery.”
The Russian MoD claimed satellite image 5 was taken on July 17, the day MH17 was downed. The metadata showed that picture 5 was also processed with Adobe Photoshop CS5; analysis of the soil structures led investigators to believe it too had been digitally altered and taken before July 15.
The report states:
Our forensic analysis of all three images clearly and unequivocally shows that these images have been altered. In each of the pictures, significant image content has been digitally modified with a high level of probability. Pictures 4 and 5 were shown to have been digitally modified using Adobe Photoshop CS5 software.
In addition, all three satellite images were shown to have been photographed before 17 July 2014. The MoD’s Picture 4 was taken sometime between 1 June 2014 and 18 June 2014, and the MoD’s Picture 5 and Picture 5-analytics were taken prior to 15 July 2014.
The Russians published a higher quality of image 5 in August 2014. The investigators did not find that Photoshop had been used, but regarding the metadata, they said, “It is unusual that a photo of an official government agency was published without metadata pertaining to the time the photo was taken, the location the photo was taken, and the creator of the photo.”
According to Bellingcat, “With this new report all four major claims made at the Russian Ministry of Defense press conference have now been shown to be false.”