The Economist November 10, 2001
DURING the Gulf war, America gave its troops civilian global-positioning system (GPS) receivers so that they could work out where they were, because it did not have enough military-grade receivers. Once a restricted, military-grade technology, GPS had been commercialised, only to be co-opted back by the military when the need arose. The same thing is now happening with commercial satellite imaging.
Space Imaging, a company based in Denver, Colorado, operates the world's highest-resolution commercial imaging satellite. Ikonos provides near real-time imagery (it passes over a given spot every three days) with a resolution of 0.82 metres--meaning that the smallest feature it can distinguish is 0.82 metres across. By the standards of America's military satellites, which have been able to see features even smaller than this for years, this does not sound too impressive. But Ikonos images provide enough detail to count individual vehicles in convoys and to distinguish different types of aircraft, so they have appreciable military value. And, in theory, anybody can buy these images. America's military has therefore resorted to an unusual tactic to control their distribution. For a cool $1.9m a month, the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA) has bought exclusive rights to all images collected over the current war zone in Afghanistan. The deal was struck in October, and this week it was extended until December. It is clear that the NIMA plans to continue extending its contract for the duration of the conflict.
This might seem odd, particularly because America, like other countries in which commercial satellite firms operate, has "shutter-control" legislation to prevent sensitive satellite images being made public during wartime. In France, for example, the defence ministry has banned the sale of images of the war zone taken by that country's constellation of SPOT satellites, which have a resolution of ten metres. (There is some evidence that Iraq bought SPOT images during its war with Iran.) But buying the rights to the Ikonos images, rather than invoking the shutter-control laws, has a number of advantages.
One is that the shutter-control legislation might not withstand a legal challenge under the American constitution's first amendment. In the past, says John Pike of GlobalSecurity, a think-tank, several American news organisations have threatened to challenge shutter control in the courts on the grounds that it contravenes freedom of speech. Another benefit of "chequebook shutter control" is that the images obtained from Ikonos (such as the one shown above) can be shared with allies, and with the public, without revealing the capabilities of America's military satellites. The use of Ikonos also allows military satellites to concentrate on areas where higher resolution is required.
Although NIMA may be neatly skirting around the first amendment, the position is less clear under international law. Ann Florini, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says that under a set of legal principles passed by the UN General Assembly in 1986, any country whose territory has been photographed or "sensed" has the right to obtain those images in a reasonable time and at a reasonable cost. When exclusive contracts are made, it is not possible for countries to find out if they have been sensed.
Early next year, a new satellite with 0.5-metre resolution will become operational. DigitalGlobe, the American company operating it, is also keen to sign a lucrative deal with the NIMA. So the notion that commercial satellites would make image censorship unfeasible has not proved correct. High launch costs, and the fact that the biggest customers for high-resolution imagery are governments, are likely to sustain the cosy relationship between commercial satellite operators and the military. In any case, high-resolution images are not much use on their own. You need to know where to point the satellites, and how to interpret the results. Despite the rise of commercial imaging, a new era of transparency has yet to dawn.
Copyright 2001 The Economist Newspaper Ltd. All rights reserved