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Commercial Satellites Are National Security’s Next Frontier

Governments no longer operate all the best spy sats in the sky

5 min read
Commercial Satellites Are National Security’s Next Frontier
Maxar Technologies

On 18 February, President Biden, citing U.S. intelligence, announced to the world “we have reason to believe the Russian forces are planning and intend to attack Ukraine in the coming week, in the coming days.” In the months leading up to the invasion in late February, the U.S. intelligence community had been revealing details of Putin’s war plans and disclosing highly classified real-time intelligence in the form of satellite imagery and providing detailed analysis of the movement of Russian forces.

Even an unsophisticated observer might notice something profoundly new about how we are experiencing major events across the globe today. Rather than waiting for bits of unclassified information revealed during official government briefings, the general public has watched the tragic crisis of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine unfold day by day. Never before have we had access to so much real-time data about an ongoing war initiated by a major power such as Russia. Every day, there are countless images, videos, audio files, data about traffic patterns on Google Maps, and high-resolution satellite imagery being shared over social media.

“In the past, only a handful of countries had access to such exquisite capabilities. Today, if other governments, or even NGOs and individuals, disagree with the information provided by one government, they can release their own imagery to prove their point.”

Matt Korda, senior research associate at the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), says the handling of this crisis differs from those in previous decades when “governments still maintained a monopoly on satellite imagery. They could decide whether to disclose particular images, how they wanted to do it, and when they wanted to inform the public about things. That is no longer the case. Today, people can conduct surveillance operations from their own homes.”

Korda has firsthand experience in making major discoveries using commercial satellite imagery about the most closely guarded secrets in the world: nuclear weapons. In July 2021, he and his FAS colleagues uncovered the existence of more than 200 missile silos under construction in China with satellite imagery, shedding new light on the country’s plans for its nuclear forces.

Several expert analysts interviewed by IEEE Spectrum agree that the rise of affordable and easily accessible commercial satellite imagery played a role in Biden’s early release of U.S. intelligence on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, Calif., sees the U.S. government’s response to Syria’s August 2013 chemical weapons attack as a point of contrast. “In the wake of that attack,” he says, “the Obama administration provided a written dossier similar to the infamous prewar intelligence briefing on Iraq’s WMD programs in 2003. It was long on words, but short on images and actual data.”

Meanwhile, the general public already had access to “satellite imagery of the war operations in Syria, horrific videos on YouTube, detailed maps and timelines of events, and audio recordings.” Lewis says the sharp contrast between such information and the official dossier released on Syria, “further harmed the credibility of U.S. intelligence.”

This time around, the U.S. government appears to have learned from past mistakes. Lewis says “they’ve grasped that their public strategy had to be different because the expectations of their audience were different. They made falsifiable claims and released commercial satellite imagery to back them up. The government fully expected that civil society would be able to check and verify the claims.”

“Unclassified commercial satellite data acts as an ‘unblinking eye’ and is giving the world access to what was once only held by governments, promoting greater global security and accountability.”

Melissa Hanham, an independent expert on weapons of mass destruction, has built a national security career on analyzing satellite imagery while working at nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). She says each image represents “a moment in time that happened. To determine what might be happening on the ground, we pair satellite imagery with all sorts of open-source data to provide explanations for what you’re seeing. Basically, you’re looking at before and after shots of activities on the Earth’s surface and identifying those that defy known patterns of life.”

Hanham says she’s “hopeful and inspired that the United States is providing actionable intelligence to build trust. This is data that you can share with allies and adversaries alike, and intelligence sources remain protected. Because it’s commercially available, it’s subject to verification by third parties.”

Commercial satellite images, she says, have exerted a powerful equalizing force. “In the past, only a handful of countries had access to such exquisite capabilities,” she says. “Today, if other governments, or even NGOs and individuals, disagree with the information provided by one government, they can release imagery from a commercial provider to prove their point.”

A number of private companies such as Planet and Capella Space are changing the way national-security professionals do business by offering affordable access to high-resolution imagery and having an impact on the ground. Planet says “unclassified commercial satellite data acts as an ‘unblinking eye’ and is giving the world access to what was once only held by governments, promoting greater global security and accountability.”

Planet operates the world’s largest fleet of Earth-imaging satellites, capturing a daily scan of the Earth’s entire surface at a resolution of 3 meters with its PlanetScope constellation of 200 satellites. According to Planet, the company’s SkySat constellation of 21 satellites captures images of ground-level detail down to 50-centimeter-length scale—up to 10 times per day. This unique combination allows customers to monitor changes on the entire surface of the planet and then zoom in on specific points of interest within a single platform.

AI and machine learning “will unlock the potential of geospatial data to everyone—not just the experts.”

Dan Getman, vice president of product at Capella Space, speaks about the advantages of synthetic aperture radar (SAR) sensors, which “can provide visibility through all weather conditions—clouds, fog, smoke, rain—and capture clear imagery 24/7, day and night, across the globe.”

As recent as five years ago, SAR imagery was far beyond the reach of most organizations except for advanced intelligence agencies. Today, Capella offers a wide range of commercial customers access to SAR imagery in a 50-cm ground resolution, allowing for identification of specific features and characteristics of objects on the ground.

Customers will be soon able to use AI-enabled analysis of commercial satellite-imagery data to decipher the meaning of subtle changes on the Earth’s surface, including data we are unable to understand with our eyes, to determine specific activities of states or individuals. Lewis says “we’re currently focused on what we look at with our eyes, but we’re entering an era where there’s a ton of nonvisible data, and the way to process that data is going to be with computers.”

Large numbers of satellites in orbit and massive volumes of data will allow machine learning tools to establish a baseline and train the algorithms to detect small changes. According to Planet, advances in AI and machine learning “will unlock the potential of geospatial data to everyone—not just the experts.”

It’s hard to imagine national security ever returning to a world in which governments held all the secrets gathered by their own spy satellite programs. “People are visual learners,” Lewis says. “It’s one thing to be told about a facility and another thing to look at a picture. This is a different way of knowing—the difference between showing and telling. It’s not perfect, but it’s really helpful. And it fundamentally changes how you think.”

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Europe Expands Virtual Borders To Thwart Migrants

Our investigation reveals that Europe is turning to remote sensing to detect seafaring migrants so African countries can pull them back

14 min read
A photo of a number of people sitting in a inflatable boat on the water with a patrol ship in the background.

Migrants in a dinghy accompanied by a Frontex vessel at the village of Skala Sikaminias, on the Greek island of Lesbos, after crossing the Aegean sea from Turkey, on 28 February 2020.


It was after midnight in the Maltese search-and-rescue zone of the Mediterranean when a rubber boat originating from Libya carrying dozens of migrants encountered a hulking cargo ship from Madeira and a European military aircraft. The ship’s captain stopped the engines, and the aircraft flashed its lights at the rubber boat. But neither the ship nor the aircraft came to the rescue. Instead, Maltese authorities told the ship’s captain to wait for vessels from Malta to pick up the migrants. By the time those boats arrived, three migrants had drowned trying to swim to the idle ship.

The private, Malta-based vessels picked up the survivors, steamed about 237 kilometers south, and handed over the migrants to authorities in Libya, which was and is in the midst of a civil war, rather than return to Malta, 160 km away. Five more migrants died on the southward journey. By delivering the migrants there, the masters of the Maltese vessels, and perhaps the European rescue authorities involved, may have violated the international law of the sea, which requires ship masters to return people they rescue to a safe port. Instead, migrants returned to Libya over the last decade have reported enslavement, physical abuse, extortion, and murders while they try to cross the Mediterranean.

If it were legal to deliver rescued migrants to Libya, it would be as cheap as sending rescue boats a few extra kilometers south instead of east. But over the last few years, Europe’s maritime military patrols have conducted fewer and fewer sea rescue operations, while adding crewed and uncrewed aerial patrols and investing in remote-sensing technology to create expanded virtual borders to stop migrants before they get near a physical border.

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