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We All Live in a See-All World

January 2003
By Maryann Lawlor
E-mail About the Author

The availability of satellite imagery offers benefits, poses risks.

When the first commercial imaging satellite rocketed into outer space, few realized that a quiet revolution leading to total transparency had begun. Like the introduction of television, the advent of commercial satellite imagery has facilitated the dissemination of information to the world in graphic detail. But experts warn that this new capability could be a double-edged sword. Commercial satellite imagery is unveiling previously secretive activities to the court of public opinion where it can be scrutinized in a way never before possible.

Satellite imagery is not new. The U.S. government has relied on its eyes in the skies for decades. Restricted access to these images ensured that only government agencies could utilize the intelligence gathered from them. While this continues to be true, today the availability of satellite imagery through commercial entities means that those in charge of U.S. national security are not the only ones who can use images for mapping or monitoring.

The National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA), Washington, D.C., is the military’s primary broker for satellite imagery. According to Bobbi Lenczowski, technical executive, NIMA, once operation Enduring Freedom began, military leaders were well aware that high-resolution satellite imagery was commercially available to both friend and foe. It is but one among several aspects of their operation security planning. Conversely, it also can be a tactical asset, giving coalition leaders open-source imagery that they can share during collaborative planning efforts, she says.

“As you know, during the first two months of operation Enduring Freedom the U.S. government purchased all of Space Imaging’s time-on-orbit over Afghanistan and Pakistan so that [U.S. Defense Department] access could not be restricted [SIGNAL, December 2001, page 16]. Almost immediately after the events of 9/11, the military initiated discussion with NIMA to review various options,” Lenczowski shares.

Space Imaging, Denver, Colorado, was the first company to offer high-resolution commercial images from its Ikonos satellite launched in September 1999 (SIGNAL, March 2001, page 17). In August 2001, the company submitted a proposal to NIMA with an option to purchase exclusive rights to an orbit’s collection time. “This was simply a Space Imaging initiative to improve its business model with the U.S. government, to make pricing schemes more attractive.

“When the discussions began between NIMA and its customers, this option became most attractive. It would give NIMA full access to all collection opportunities; it would mitigate some of the operations security risk; it would allow coalition use of unclassified imagery; and it would bring revenue to Space Imaging,” Lenczowski explains.

NIMA acknowledges that, although commercial imagery benefits the military, there are limitations. “Military planning is frequently as much about contextual environment and synoptic views of the battlespace as it is about very high-resolution information. So, there is a necessary balance between the two when acquiring imagery for planning purposes.

“In addition, timeliness of the imagery is critical. When multiple days intervene between collection opportunities, the utility of the collection, no matter how high the resolution, is limited. On the other hand, having readily available very high-resolution imagery will increase the military planners’ sensitivity to operations security,” Lenczowski relates.

Despite the risks, experts agree that the benefits of ubiquitous transparency outweigh the dangers. With adequate safeguards in place through licensing requirements, commercial satellite imagery is moving the world closer to becoming a better-informed global community. The ramifications of this new openness cannot be ignored, and analysts are discussing how it changes the world today and affects policy making in the future.

Although the U.S. intelligence community had reservations about the introduction of the commercial sector into the satellite imaging arena, Ann Florini, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C., says that the threat to the U.S. military is exaggerated. Licensing agreements between the federal government and companies are broadly phrased so national security threats, international applications or foreign policy issues are addressed, she explains. For example, half-meter images cannot be released for 24 hours, and companies cannot sell images to organizations or individuals on a denied parties list.

“If the government is concerned, the U.S. can control and prohibit companies from taking pictures—an approach known as shutter control—or selling them, or they can purchase all of the images. But even without taking these steps, the images are only useful if they are timely and can be analyzed properly. They are useful to the United States because we have this capability. I can imagine circumstances when releasing images would be a significant threat, but you have to look at who these companies are. These are not people who will endanger national security,” Florini says.

The U.S. government’s agreement with Space Imaging concerning Afghanistan and Pakistan at the beginning of operation Enduring Freedom is an example of managing who can obtain satellite images. Florini calls this “checkbook control.”

In terms of supporting the military, commercial images supplement those gathered by government-owned satellites. Bryan Whitman, spokesman for the Pentagon, says employing commercial satellites allows for broader coverage of the world. As a result, these satellites can capture and make available images of general interest, freeing up military satellites to focus on areas of critical interest to national security. In addition, because these images are from an open source, they can be shared with allies without source-protection issues.

Martin C. Faga, president, The Mitre Corporation, McLean, Virginia, agrees that readily available commercial imagery only minimally affects military operations. Faga, who was director of the National Reconnaissance Office during the Gulf War, points out that surveillance always has been an element of warfare. Satellite images simply allow this work to be carried out less conspicuously.

“We’re interested in looking without you knowing that we’re looking. And unlike other forms of surveillance, satellite imagery is relatively quick,” he notes.

Although adversaries could use the same tactics, Faga says having this new method to covertly conduct surveillance does not change the total nature of warfare. “Every tactical commander has to deceive the enemy even under traditional surveillance,” he says.

However, Steven Livingston believes commercial satellite imagery could have a greater effect on the nature of warfare. Livingston, who is a senior research fellow at the Center for American Politics and Public Policy, University of Washington, Seattle, says it changes the dynamics of a potential conflict because it contributes to information superiority.

The secrecy surrounding government-owned satellite images is part of what pushed the government’s support of the commercial satellite industry, Livingston relates. Sharing information even within military organizations involves layers of bureaucracy. Now, unclassified maps can be disseminated more easily. Military operations resemble a chess game, so seeing the location of all the players allows military commanders to anticipate the moves of their opponents, he adds.

Easy access to images brings with it certain dangers. “The enemy can acquire maps of areas or build up an archive. A military doesn’t have the advantage of setting up early, so it must move more quickly,” Livingston says. Consequently, military strategy will be predicated on speed and stealth, he adds.

Livingston is describing activity that military planners have already anticipated. David J. Ozolek, deputy director, Joint Futures Lab, Joint Experimentation Directorate, U.S. Joint Forces Command, Suffolk, Virginia, says experimentation scenarios have involved space-based capabilities for some time. “We have proceeded on the assumption that anyone with money can purchase civilian-generated space products. The asymmetrical advantage we have, or need to have, is that we are really the only nation that can truly shape the situation in space if we want to or need to.

“We have explored what capabilities we would need in order to ensure our exclusivity in that dimension. We obviously can’t talk about the details, which include some difficult policy questions, but we have done considerable thinking on the issue as we have explored it from an experimenter’s unconstrained ‘what if’ perspective,” Ozolek shares.

Experts disagree about the current degree of military dependence on commercial assets. However, they concur that use of commercial imagery resources is likely to follow the trend seen in transportation, logistics and communications infrastructure arenas—its use will increase in the future.

Military leaders allow that the same measures as those used to protect essential terrestrial infrastructure would be extended to guard and defend commercial space assets. In addition, commanders have contingency plans that they would turn to if space-based capabilities are disrupted or destroyed.

Although license requirements offer some degree of control over U.S. satellite imaging companies, they do not prevent other countries with similar space-based capabilities from creating their own policies regarding sharing images. According to Tim Brown, senior associate, GlobalSecurity.org, Alexandria, Virginia, it was international interest in the satellite imaging field that prompted the U.S. government to support the growth of this industry in the United States.

Only a handful of nations have space programs that are developed enough to support commercial satellite imagery. Building up the U.S. industry gives the United States more control, he offers. However, because commercial images are in the public domain, other countries no longer have to construct their own space programs; they can simply rent space assets, he adds.

The time delay in processing and analysis may preclude images from being an immediate source of intelligence for military tactical commanders; however, it does not decrease its value to other types of organizations.

Brown’s organization, for example, focuses on innovative approaches to emerging security challenges. One GlobalSecurity.org goal is to shift U.S. conventional military forces toward new capabilities and reduce the worldwide incidence of deadly conflict. Commercial satellite imagery is one tool the organization uses to publicize changes and threats around the world.

Two other types of organizations also benefit from the availability of images of the world: special interest groups and the media.

Humanitarian aid and environmental organizations are purchasing satellite images to investigate events around the world and support their causes. When one of these groups makes its case, it can now use pictures to prove a point, Brown says. “This creates an informed democracy and may demonstrate that we are not as safe as we thought we were. It can set the agenda for governments because activities are no longer as secretive as they once were,” he relates.

But several experts agree that seeing should not always be believing. Satellite images can be manipulated and analysis skewed to support a specific agenda, they warn.

Although the media is a likely customer for satellite images, this industry has not yet taken full advantage of it, Brown says. The reason appears to be twofold. First, images can be costly, and most news organizations have not budgeted for them. Second, images of a specific area cannot be collected within the time constraints of the news cycle, so they may not be available in time for the 6 o’clock broadcast, he states.

Despite some limitations, representatives from satellite imagery companies contend that their products offer an increasing number of benefits. Mark Brender, executive director for government affairs, Space Imaging, asserts that satellite images can play a significant role in meeting today’s challenges to protect citizens.

“Eighty percent of what homeland security needs to accomplish has some type of geospatial reference. Satellite images can be the base map on which many different applications can be launched. Forward-leaning counties have asked us for maps. Those who budget for this product end up serving their citizens more efficiently,” Brender says.

For nearly two years, Space Imaging was the only U.S. company offering high-resolution images. That changed in October 2001 with DigitalGlobe’s launch of its QuickBird satellite. Located in Longmont, Colorado, DigitalGlobe products offer 60-centimeter resolution that can show details such as car windshields, individual trees and parking lot lines.

DigitalGlobe’s Steve Wood, director of defense marketing, and Chuck Herring, director of marketing communications, agree with Brender that satellite images offer benefits in a number of areas, including homeland security and the military. They say that while satellite images may not be the best choice for supporting the tactical commander, they are extremely useful for mapping purposes. “It is a matter of the practical versus the strategic. They can be the foundation that can then be updated, and they are the best way to view a large chunk of land,” Wood says.

Acknowledging that making images available commercially poses some risks, Wood points out that the checks and balances that are currently in place through licensing agreements are necessary. Commanders must keep in mind that they could be vulnerable and take appropriate action, he adds.

Herring points out that other countries already are getting close to the high-resolution capabilities offered by DigitalGlobe, so the number of players in the industry is likely to continue to increase. Because the U.S. government does not have licensing control over these firms, the danger commercial imagery poses also could increase. He is quick to add, however, that all new technologies potentially can help and threaten the U.S. military, and DigitalGlobe is looking for guidance from the Defense Department about how best to mitigate the risks.

Additional information on Space Imaging is available on the World Wide Web at http://www.spaceimaging.com and on DigitalGlobe at www.digitalglobe.com.