The photos taken from a height of 100-200 meters, which can be seen on Yandex map pages, show not only places popular with tourists. Railway junctions, bridges, hydroelectric power plants and communication towers are also photographed – and the images may have been obtained in contravention of Latvia's strict drone-flying laws, De Facto suggests.
Around 50 aerial panoramas were taken all around Rīga. Even more views are available above Daugavpils.
"Unfortunately, the agency does not have sufficient information to clearly state what technical means were used to take these photos. Therefore, it cannot answer, confirm or deny that all the requirements set out in the regulation have been observed," Civil Aviation Agency (CAA) head of the unmanned aircraft flight safety department Ilmārs Ozols told LTV.
Neither Yandex nor its representatives have applied to the CAA to obtain the special aviation work permit that would be required for use of an unmanned aircraft. Also, Yandex is not registered in the register of unmanned aircraft or drones.
The agency admits that someone could have provided Yandex with the images from an external source, but it seems fairly clear that a drone was used.
Ozols explains that at a height of up to 120 meters, which is the general limit for drones, there are no special requirements to coordinate anything in order to take pictures, but other rules must also be observed, such as protecting privacy, trade secrets and critical infrastructure facilities.
The head of the CAA's unmanned aircraft department believes that, at least in some photographs, the requirements might have been violated: "For example, near the airports – Riga, Liepāja – there is a 5-kilometer limit where no flights are allowed, and in an even larger area there is a 50-meter height limit. In some places it can be identified that it was closer to the airfield or higher than these limits, but there is no detailed information, with what technical means, when and who would have done it – unfortunately, there is no such information."
Yandex is the largest Internet company in Russia. Russian state banks Sberbank and VTB are shareholders and in March of this year, the European Union included Tigran Khudaverdyan, CEO of Yandex, on its sanctions list. He attended a meeting of oligarchs in the Kremlin after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In June, Yandex co-founder Arkady Volozh was also subject to sanctions. He is mentioned in the list as one of the leading businessmen who provide an important source of income for the Russian government.
It is known that Yandex sends data to the Russian security services when requested to do so.
For example, the company itself revealed in 2020 that it received more than 15,000 requests for information about users from the Russian authorities in just six months, and Yandex coplied with 84% of these requests.
Yandex began creating panoramic views from a bird's eye view in 2012 with St. Petersburg. In 10 years, the western part of Russia was covered with such 360-degree panoramas, pictures were also taken over Belarus, Kazakhstan, Georgia, Turkey, occupied Crimea and other places.
Yandex claimed in a written response to the LTV program "De facto" that Latvia was photographed by its map users.
"Yandex Maps, like similar map services, offers people from many countries the opportunity to put their panoramic photos on our maps. We check that the pictures do not contain hate speech, private interiors and anything related to violating privacy and other social norms. We can also to remove the pictures upon lawful request," the Yandex press office wrote.
You can find only a few photos of panoramas on Yandex Maps throughout the European Union, apart from Latvia, where, as it seems, a three-year photo campaign took place - in 2019, 2020, 2021. In addition, all photos are of similarly high quality.
Photography of infrastructure objects, is a cause for concern in view of the Russian war in Ukraine and Russia's intense targeting of civilian infrastucture. LTV reminds viewers that Russian military intelligence is particularly active in Latvia and those already caught for espionage in Latvia were given tasks to photograph infrastructure objects such as towers, warehouses, and railways.
In a written comment to the program, the State Security Service (VDD) mentions that when planning sabotage and acts of terrorism against nationally important objects, detailed information is initially obtained, including film and photography. However, the images posted on Yandex Maps are not of such high quality, according to the service: "In the assessment of the VDD, the photos available on the Yandex Maps website do not provide an opportunity to view infrastructure important to national security and national defense in such a level of detail to obtain information essential for intelligence."
In recent years, the conditions for the use of unmanned aircraft have been tightened. From this summer, especially in Rīga, equipment of the Civil Aviation Agency is actively used, which allows the police to detect violators. If a drone pilot violates the established altitude or proximity limit, the devices allow not only the location of the drone but also of the pilot to be determined.