Top-secret Kodak moment in space shakes global security
New satellite images of a Pakistani nuclear facility show how snapshots could be used to influence diplomacy.
The images are clear and, according to Jim Pike, clearly troubling.
Posted on the Web site of the Federation of American Scientists, the high-resolution satellite pictures reveal to civilian eyes for the first time a completed nuclear reactor and missile base in Khushab, Pakistan.
To Mr. Pike and other members of the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), the images show the danger of Pakistan's nuclear program. As President Clinton this week travels to India and Pakistan, they should serve as a reminder that Pakistan must be firmly dealt with, says the FAS.
But to policy experts worldwide, the images are an indication of how the commercialization of ever-clearer satellite images promises to reshape the global diplomatic landscape.
Never before have private organizations been able to buy satellite photos of such high quality and detail - new "superbirds" can distinguish objects the size of a tank. Moreover, with more commercial satellites going up each year, the opportunity for purchasing images is only increasing.
In turn, the emerging marketplace for high-resolution pictures is clashing with issues of privacy and national sovereignty as countries worry that precious information could be sold to the highest bidder.
"The deployment of commercially operated, satellite-based cameras is furthering the denationalization of the planet's information infrastructure," says Gernot Brodnig of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Mass. "In today's world, control of strategic information is power - who has it, when, and how."
Already the purview of geologists, city-planners, and farmers, images from lower-resolution cameras have been used since the 1970s, but as technology pulses forward, higher- and higher-resolution cameras have become more available.
Satellites launched from the US are licensed by the Department of Commerce, and the US reserves the power of "shutter control," meaning it can decide when and where images can and can not be taken. But satellites launched from other countries operate under the United Nations' "open-skies doctrine," which allows the earth to be photographed by anyone, anywhere, and at any time - with very few exceptions.
In some cases, this can be a benefit to the US and the world. Satellite images provided evidence of mass graves in Bosnia in 1995 and documented Chernobyl's burning reactor No. 4 in 1986.
But some analysts are concerned that America has lost control of the skies. Unable to exercise shutter control on foreign-owned satellites, commercial operators are free to monitor anything from troop movements to secret training facilities.
In this brave new world of private satellite imaging, though, Pike says the distribution of satellite images is for now controlled by two old-fashioned factors: supply and demand. For example, Soyuzcarta, the commercial sales arm of a Russian mapping agency, won't sell Pike images of China. Why? China is its main customer.
"The probability Soyuzcarta will sell you an image is directly proportional to how boring it is," says Pike, a defense analyst at FAS. "The more interesting it is, the less likely we'll see it."
And supposing that Soyuzcarta does agree to take images for commercial purposes, getting the perfect shot is complex.
Clouds cover 75 percent of the earth at all times, and some satellites take days to get back over their target.
Yet this situation is sure to change, and swiftly. Defense analysts expect three new satellites with one-meter resolution cameras to be in space within the next year. The days of America's virtual monopoly of the skies are dwindling.
"In the past, America had undenied access to space," says Jack Spencer, a national-security analyst at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. "We knew what [our enemies] were doing and they didn't."
Case in point: In 1991, during the Gulf war, the US requested some blackouts on picture-taking by non-American commercially operated satellites over the Gulf. The goal was to keep Gen. Norman Schwarz-kopf's so-called left-hook flanking operation a secret. Diplomacy worked, but the question remains: Will private operators always serve America's security interests?
The answer to this question is uncertain, but for now, private organizations are likely to continue their own spying. "The use of this imagery is a powerful tool," says Pike. "We're learning things we could not have. The jury is still out on how that will influence policy, but it gives us greater potential than we'd otherwise have."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society