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God’s Eyes for Sale

High-resolution satellite images are about to flood the marketplace. They could be good for business, but what will they do for terrorists?
March 1, 1999

The idea that led to John Hoffman’s breakthrough came from an unlikely place: a government bureaucrat. Hoffman had been thinking of ways to incorporate high-quality satellite data-the kind that intelligence agencies use-into his fledgling aerial photography business. The problem was that the sort of data the United States has is mostly on places like Siberian oil fields. Not much commercial potential there. But the government official’s remark turned the whole thing around. “He said to me,” Hoffman recalls, “You know son, what you ought to do is to go up to the blankety-blank Russians, because by God they’ve been taking pictures of us for 20 years.’”

That advice led Hoffman to experiences reminiscent of a Tom Clancy novel. With the aid of Mike Laserson, who had helped broker U.S.-Soviet grain deals in the 1970s and 1980s, Hoffman finagled a meeting with the Russian Ministry of Defense in late 1994 to promote his idea of putting spy-quality satellite images on the commercial market. Things didn’t start off too well, Hoffman recollects: “Here were a couple of Americans walking into the Russian intelligence community and saying, Hey, you have all these neat photographs. We want you to declassify them so we can sell them to people.’”

But after a few days of discussion followed by a vodka-soaked dinner at the OMNI hotel in Moscow, Hoffman and Laserson won over the Russians. Which made it possible to form a joint venture between Hoffman’s company, Aerial Images, Laserson’s one-man consulting firm, Central Trading Systems, and Sovinformsputnik, the government spinoff that promotes and markets products and services of the Russian Space Agency. After a first failure, a SPIN-2 satellite launched by the joint venture succeeded, spending 45 days in late 1997 snapping thousands of pictures. Then Microsoft, Compaq and Kodak pooled their skills to create a Web-based catalogue and fulfillment service called the Terraserver, which they touted, byte for byte, as the largest database on the Internet.

With 2-meter satellite images (which resolve objects as small as 2 meters across) on sale last summer for as little as $10 each, Hoffman and his partners won an early leg of a new highly competitive race to cash in on data that were once the province of the spooks. “The intelligence community had a 30-year monopoly on high-quality satellite imagery,” says Marty Faga, former head of the formerly classified National Reconnaissance Office, which has been responsible for U.S. spy satellites since 1962. “The monopoly is over.”

In fact, that monopoly is over with a vengeance. In the next months and years a gaggle of companies around the world plan to launch high-resolution imagery satellites, some capable of achieving resolutions fine enough to detect objects less than a meter across-which used to be state of the art for the intelligence community. According to projections by some industry analysts, sales of this new commodity, along with value-added services, such as merging satellite imagery with geographic land-use data, could reach half a billion dollars within a few years. Companies could use the spy-quality data to see what their competitors are doing. It might help foresters to inventory trees by species. News outlets could use it to identify breaking stories. Urban planners could see how cities grow and where to put streets or highways.

That’s the upside of this explosion of once-super-secret information. But looked at from another perspective, a darker image appears. What if, for example, Saddam Hussein had access to 1-meter spy-satellite data during the Gulf War? Might his troops have put up a tougher fight? What if some other rogue state or terrorist groups could use the satellite to target nuclear-tipped missiles on major international airports? According to John Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, there are plenty of terrorists, industrial spies, rogue governments and other miscreants waiting to get their hands on such data.

The problem, says Logsdon, is that this information is poised to spill into the marketplace so fast that policy-making hasn’t had a chance to catch up. This is an area, he says, where “capability may be running ahead of a thoughtful, comprehensive assessment of the pros and cons of going forward.” The Clinton administration’s policy goal to (in the words of an administration official who insisted on anonymity) “strike a balance between foreign policy and commercial interest” has put things on the fast track; the Department of Commerce’s process for licensing purveyors of high-quality satellite data is a fairly business-friendly one. And with foreign competitors in Canada, France, India, the former Soviet Union, Japan and Israel, the data are likely to become available to just about anybody, anywhere in the world.

Before figuring out the consequences of this situation, it’s a good idea to take a step back and look at how we got into it. Anybody who watches the weather on TV knows that low-resolution satellite imagery has been publicly available for many years. NASA started peddling low-resolution pictures from the Landsat program as early as the 1970s. Since then, selling low-to-moderate-resolution data (down to the 10-meter range) has become a globally competitive industry, with government-run or -assisted agencies from the United States, France, India, Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada all in the game.

But that kind of imagery is a very different proposition from the kind of high-resolution imagery that is about to flood the market. And it took a couple of recent developments to get the high-resolution business off the ground, as it were. For one thing, spacecraft and launches got a whole lot cheaper. “It’s now possible to get into the business for $20 million to $50 million,” says Ray Williamson, a colleague of Logsdon’s at the Space Policy Institute. The Russians can put your goods into space at rock-bottom prices from their Baikanur launching facility in Kazakhstan. China also provides budget launch services.

The market for satellite imagery also has been growing and diversifying over the past few decades. Many early users were shallow-pocketed scientists tracking large-scale phenomena such as weather, forest decline, ocean conditions and global warming. But that kind of market couldn’t support a whole private-sector industry, so governments provided big-time subsidies to keep the satellites in orbit. In the meantime, though, a large new commercial sector emerged: the Geographic Information Services (GIS) industry.

GIS companies work primarily with corporate customers, offering them overhead data relevant to their businesses. The walls of GIS companies are papered with satellite images from Landsat, France’s Spot Image, Canada’s RADARSAT (which gathers remote sensing data using high-resolution radar rather than optical technology) and other providers. Analysts combine these images with geographic information, such as jurisdictional boundary maps, agricultural resources and demographic data. The growth of GIS provided a basis for “incorporating all kinds of interesting information into satellite images,” says Williamson. With these value-added service providers now in place, high-resolution spy-quality images now have a sizable market in waiting.

As soon as the conditions were right, people like John Hoffman were ready to step forward. In fact, high-resolution imagery was part of Hoffman’s planning from the time he founded Aerial Images in Raleigh, N.C., in 1988. But it wasn’t until after the Cold War and his adventures in Moscow that he was ready to get into orbit. By May 1996, a Russian Cosmos spacecraft bearing a SPIN-2 satellite with a high-resolution camera earmarked for his joint venture was perched atop a Soyuz B rocket at the Baikanur site.

These Russian “birds,” as satellites are known in the trade, carry sophisticated optical systems but they aren’t up-to-date in every respect. Most of Hoffman’s competitors beam images back to earth via telemetry systems. But the Russian SPIN-2s carry film that must be physically retrieved from a canister that falls back to earth. The film is processed in Russia, then sent to the United States, where precision scanners convert the photographs into digital images. Once digitized, the imagery data can make it onto disks, databases for GIS providers, the Internet and the rest of the digital world.

Launching satellites of any kind isn’t a business for the queasy; failure is often part of the game. The first SPIN-2 had equipment trouble and never made it into orbit. But Hoffman has a strong stomach, and the second try, in 1997, succeeded, providing the images for the Terraserver, offering the general public its first taste of what only intelligence types used to be able to see.

That taste soon will be followed by a veritable banquet of high-resolution images, as Hoffman’s competitors get into the business (see sidebar: “The Image Makers”). In the next months and years several companies, including Space Imaging of Thornton, Colo., Orbital Sciences of Dulles, Va., and Earth Watch of Longmont, Colo., expect to launch high-resolution imagery satellites. Some will offer resolution slightly finer than 1 meter-better than Hoffman’s SPIN-2 birds can now produce. And although that’s getting closer to the capabilities of the actual spy satellites, the real spooks say they still have the sharpest-sighted birds in the sky. “We will remain a step ahead of commercial capability,” says Rick Oborn, spokesman for the National Reconnaissance Office, whose satellites these days can reportedly achieve a resolution of 10 centimeters.

The new spy-quality images won’t just be cheaper and more convenient than the old ones. “With the increase in spatial details comes the ability to not only map geological features, but to ask questions that you could not answer with lower-resolution imagery,” says geologist John Amos, an analyst with Advanced Resources International, a GIS firm in Fairfax, Va.

Lately, Amos has been spending lots of time helping clients identify “sweet spots” in beds of sandstone suspected of harboring natural gas. Most of the gas is locked in low-permeability sandstone. The sweet spots have higher permeability, making it easier to get the gas out. Amos’ geologically trained eyes can garner subtle hints from satellite imagery about where those spots might be. When the higher-resolution imagery becomes available, he’ll be able to zoom in on candidate sweet spots first pegged during analysis with the lower-resolution imagery. And that could make it easier to rule out the pseudo-sweet spots that would soak up money while producing no gas.

Still, Amos expects that the technophilic urge of clients for the hottest new gadget will be something to guard against. The irony of high-resolution imagery, he explains, is that “you can actually lose the forest for the trees.” These images offer more detail, but over much less area than low-resolution images. “There will always be a value in looking at large enough areas at low resolution so that the brain doesn’t get swamped with details,” Amos says.

And though the high-resolution data could help people like Amos, who spend their time looking at huge sweeps of ocean and sparsely developed countryside, it might be even more helpful to those concentrating on urban areas. One of the first to log on to the Terraserver was Eli Naor, an architect with VBN Associates in Oakland, Calif., designing a roadway and bridge connecting a freeway to the Oakland Airport. Says Naor: “I was able to locate the Bay on a graphic map of the world and then through a series of enlargements I was able to zoom in on the Oakland Airport at a high degree of magnification, find the roadway in question, and acquire the image.” He says overhead perspectives are good for business because they help him do his design work as well as show it in presentations. Naor says he’s also excited about helping his kids use the newly available satellite imagery for school projects.

The image of an architect-dad helping his kids do their schoolwork represents the soft and fuzzy side of the newly available pictures. But the prospect of North Korea aiming nuclear missiles is a different matter. It’s that kind of scenario that has made the high-resolution imagery business a topic of debate among Washington lawmakers and regulators. And indeed, the new satellites could even erode personal privacy. If you suspected your neighbors were building a swimming pool on the other side of a high fence, you might be able to confirm your hunch with some satellite data (though at 1-meter resolution, would-be Peeping Toms are bound to be disappointed by the poor detail of the view from space).

A newly formed Remote Sensing Interagency Working Group hopes to steer the emerging industry in a direction compatible with national interests. The group, including representatives from the Departments of Commerce, Defense and State, has been developing guidelines for incorporating safeguards into the licenses for selling high-resolution satellite imagery. Satellite operators must keep a log of all pictures their satellites take. They must close their cameras’ shutters when the government deems that dissemination of high-resolution satellite imagery could threaten security. There are also idiosyncratic limitations, most notably the prohibition of any U.S. company gathering imagery over Israeli territory that is finer than imagery available from non-U.S. companies; Space Imaging, for example, will not be able to sell 1-meter pictures of Israeli territory from its yet-to-be-launched IKONOS-1 satellite until some other country offers the same product. (This was a concession to Israel, whose lobbyists, some say, pushed for it on security grounds.) And a 1997 article in the New York Times reported that the Pentagon was preparing the ultimate defense: anti-satellite weapons capable of destroying the imagery satellites.

Where the balance of good and evil wrought by the new view will fall depends on whether the information increases or decreases security in the world. Without question, many of the first customers in the new market will be national governments. “Space imagery is going to be part of the intelligence trade for the other 190 countries that haven’t had access to it,” says John Pike of the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, D.C., where he monitors the intelligence community. “By helping countries know what is going on around them, this could be a tool for the countries of the world in either planning security-threatening actions or security-stabilizing actions,” says Logsdon of the Space Policy Institute. “Here is information that heretofore has not been available and can be used for both positive and negative purposes.”

In one of the more alarming scenarios, ill-meaning, technology-savvy terrorists or governments might try to couple high-resolution satellite imagery with the already commercial Global Positioning System (GPS). The GPS is a multi-satellite system by which the position of anyone or anything can be determined with an accuracy of tens of feet in the case of commercial uses and better in the case of military ones. “The real concern,” says the Space Policy Institute’s Williamson, “is that with this high-resolution data and a couple of GPS receivers, you can do very good targeting.”

Pike points out another possible unintended consequence that high-resolution satellite imagery could catalyze. Countries like Argentina and Brazil have to take a certain laissez-faire attitude about each other’s military power at the moment because they have no easy way of answering the question: What is my neighbor’s level of military readiness? With high-resolution satellite imagery, however, “it can be an answerable question,” says Pike. So lots of information that used to be out of mind because it was out of sight can now come into view. And that could mean military commanders and decision-makers may feel compelled to cover themselves or impress their superiors by gathering imagery intelligence they never used to have access to.

Most of the expert observers contacted for this article believe that, on balance, it’s better for adversaries to know more rather than less about each other. “By and large transparency is stabilizing,” says Chris Simpson, a former journalist who now teaches at American University, where his research focuses on national security issues in communications. Simpson points to the Dayton Accords that were signed following meetings in 1995 when opposing leaders in the former Yugoslavia finally met at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio to try to end the bloodshed. The negotiations included “fly-by” satellite imagery that provided a pilot’s-eye view of a region. “They systematically tracked where various forces were, what the geometry of the forces was, what towns were run by what groups,” says Simpson. “It captured their attention enough that they were able to come to a cease-fire.” But Simpson is no Pollyanna: “Circumstances in which satellite data might not be stabilizing are ones in which two sides are evenly matched, but where one side has a greater amount of information than the other.” India and Pakistan, who are threatening to play out their own Cold War, come to mind.

And lying beyond questions of security-personal, corporate, national and international-is the issue of how the new pictures will affect our experience of the world. The images won’t tell us just where the weather is, but also “where urban development is taking place, where highways will be, where environmental crises are centered and where they are not centered,” says Simpson. “The next generation will grow up with this kind of overview as an integral part of the conceptualizing of the world in the same way that people have grown up with TV as an integral part of their lives.”

There is a big difference, however, between TV pictures and those that are about to flood us with fire-hose strength. Most TV imagery is local and all-too-human: couples in their apartments, players on a baseball field, cops in their cruisers. Satellite imagery is a veritable “God’s-eye view” of this world, though the raw images are nonparochial. Political boundaries don’t show up; the local is seamlessly connected to the global. The arrival of spy-grade satellite data into everyday life stands a chance of countering TV’s small pictures with the big picture. It could provide yet another tool, pixel by pixel, for human beings to express their ill will. Or, if we’re lucky, that big picture could have great healing power.

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