Government, media focus on commercial satellite images

Feature
Page Number: 
37

From the Summer 2003 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 37.



By Jennifer LaFleur

Technology played many roles in the U.S. war in Iraq. News organizations' Web sites brought updated stories and live coverage. Small satellite dishes and portable telephones quickly turned reporting on the ground into stories.

But one key piece of technology was hundreds of miles from earth. High-resolution satellite imagery gave newspaper readers and television viewers a new perspective on this war. In some cases, satellite images provided perspective when no information was available on the ground.

Satellite photography, also known as remote imaging, traditionally has been a government function and in previous military actions did not enjoy widespread use by news organizations. Today, many satellite images are captured by commercial companies. And the role of commercial satellite photography companies will increase.

The Bush administration in late April announced a new policy that makes commercial space photography the primary source for government users, instead of photos taken by government satellites.

The policy replaces the one set by the Clinton administration, which limited the activities of the space companies. The new directive will require federal agencies to buy the photos from private companies. Also, any government satellites launched in the future will focus only on those needs that cannot be met by industry spacecraft. The new policy kept provisions for government limits in cases of national security.

In a June 2002 memo to the director of the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, CIA Director George Tenet said: "It is the policy of the Intelligence Community to use U.S. commercial space imagery to the greatest extent possible."

Two key players in this venture are Colorado-based companies Space Imaging and Digital Globe.

In 1999, Space Imaging launched its IKONOS satellite, which collects one-meter resolution black-and-white images (meaning an object one meter by one meter can be seen in the image) and four-meter resolution color images. IKONOS captures its images of Earth from about 400 miles up and moves at a speed of about four-and-a-half miles per second, which means the satellite circles the earth every 98 minutes. The satellite can see the same point on earth once every three days, and it captures about 1,000 images each day.

In October 2001, Digital Globe, previously named EarthWatch, launched the QuickBird 2 satellite. The Digital Globe ground system was upgraded to receive, process and relay QuickBird satellite data through a network of two ground stations in Norway and Alaska linked to the Mission Control Center at Digital Globe's headquarters. As of the first quarter of 2002, Digital Globe provides high-resolution 61-centimeter panchromatic (black and white) and 2.44-meter multispectral (blue, green, red, near-infrared) images.

A newcomer to the high-resolution commercial satellite imaging world is Virginia-based ORBIMAGE, which currently is developing its OrbView-3 high-resolution satellite that will offer one-meter panchromatic and four-meter multispectral digital imagery.

The new Bush administration policy has been hailed by imagery firms, which likely will see increased business as government agencies make greater use of commercial satellite imagery.

But that move to increase the use of commercial vendors also poses new concerns for government openness advocates because it moves more government functions to private companies and allows the federal government to secure information relating to national security or foreign policy.

"On its face, there's not a lot of difference between the existing arbitrary policy and the new arbitrary policy," said Chris Simpson, an associate professor of communications at American University who teaches and studies the media's use of satellite imaging.

"The Secretary of State or the Secretary of Defense can, without a court review, without appeal, without notifying, bar distribution of satellite images. All they have to do is say there is a national security or foreign policy interest, which could include fisheries, aircraft patterns over Europe, emissions from China. Foreign policy interest is anything," Simpson said.

Shutters haven't closed

But even though official policy allows the government to shut off satellite imaging or distribution of imaging through what's known as "shutter control," that policy has not been used, said Mark Brender, vice president at Space Imaging.

"Our operating license includes shutter control, which provides a lever by which the U.S. government can interrupt service when there is a 'threat to national security or foreign policy concern,'" said Brender, who is a former ABC News Pentagon producer. "We have been operating for three and a half years and we've never had that provision applied."

However, satellite imagery has been limited through contractual rather than regulatory means, Brender said. For a three-month period after September 11, images of Pakistan and Afghanistan were available only to the U.S. government because of an exclusive contract it negotiated for the images.

That was what some media organizations called "checkbook shutter control," said Kathleen Kirby, First Amendment counsel for the Radio-Television News Directors Association.

"But that contract is over and all of that imagery is now available," Brender said, noting that some have said that situation was tantamount to shutter control. "It was a contract that we agreed to."

But with the war in Iraq, no such contract existed. And in recent months and years, more companies have entered the satellite imaging business. According to Brender, Israel, France, Japan and India have launched high-resolution satellites.

"It would be difficult for the U.S. government to enter into enough contracts to keep all that imagery off the shelf," Brender said. "And with 600 embedded journalists, why shutter control a commercial imaging satellite that's overhead every three days?"

"They've kept provisions that will enable them to exercise shutter control, but the likelihood seems to be minimal," Kirby said, "because people could go outside for the images and it's expensive if they wanted to corner the market."

But some users of satellite images still say the market is not really open.

"Real competition is still years away," said Tim Brown, senior analyst with GlobalSecurity.org, a nonprofit think tank in Alexandria, Va., which uses satellite images to track weapons sites around the world. "Guaranteed contracts with U.S. companies demonstrates the U.S. government's intention to keep it in the family. If you build it, they won't come."

The organization's findings are published online at GlobalSecurity.org.

Brown also noted that it is difficult to say how the administration's policy will affect organizations that use satellite images because the policy itself is classified, though excerpts and analyses of the policy have been released.

"This is part of the problem of the policy. We don't know what's going on there," Brown said. "We have no way of knowing how the government is influencing what the satellite companies do."

Shutter control provisions in the policy allow the government to halt the gathering or distribution of satellite imaging to "protect U.S. national security and foreign policy interests." And although that provision has yet to be exercised, other geospatial information is being subjected to tighter controls.

New state laws restrict access to satellite images and mapping data relating to the critical infrastructure in the United States.

New York, for example, has eliminated access to satellite images of things it deems vulnerable. Illinois has eliminated access to government mapping systems, known as geographic information systems, or GIS.

Some of the limits on release of satellite images are either part of contracts satellite companies have with the U.S. government or internal policies of the companies.

For example, Digital Globe limits access to photos that would reveal U.S. military troop positions. And, as part of its licensing agreement with the government, the company waits 24 hours before releasing anything of an 82-centimeter resolution or better.

News organizations begin to focus on imagery

Geospatial information combines photographs with location and other data to find patterns and create richer maps that precisely identify locations and objects. News organizations use this information to report on everything from environmental problems to census population figures. The Denver Post used satellite imaging in its reporting on fires in Summer 2002. Several news organizations used satellite images of the debris patterns from the space shuttle Columbia.

Sports Illustrated used images from Digital Globe's satellite in its coverage of the U.S. Open golf tournament to illustrate the course.

"[Satellite imagery] provides context on the ground," said Kenyon Waugh of Digital Globe. "It provides visual context for whatever it is reporting -- such as forest fires or flood damage."

CBS News uses satellite imagery extensively, said CBS producer Daniel Dubno, "from man-made events such as wars to natural disasters."

During the war in Iraq, CBS obtained and broadcast high-resolution imagery of bomb damage in Baghdad within hours, he said.

"We used imagery to identify conflict areas; to elaborate on high-value assets, like oil fields and dams, and to track troop movements," Dubno said. "Literally hundreds of images were obtained and dozens of images were broadcast during the war. Commercial satellite imagery is broadcast on nearly a daily basis in prime time and evening news broadcasts."

Most recently, the New York Times used satellite imagery from Space Imaging to show the house in Mosul where Saddam Hussein's sons Uday and Qusay were killed.

In some cases, Brender said, imaging provided information when no reporters were allowed in certain areas. When no reporters were allowed on the U.S. Air Force base on Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, satellite imagery confirmed that the U.S. government was constructing two B-2 bomber hangers there.

"Officially, the Air Force won't confirm its two new high-tech portable

B-2 shelters have been erected on

Diego Garcia -- even though a satellite photo. . . shows them there," Stars and Stripes reported in January.

Satellite imagery has captured activities in North Korea where no reporters have been able to report from the ground.

Because a satellite operates above any controlled air space, there are fewer limitations on its travels.

"There is a new realization that there's great value in this technology breathing free without government control," Brender said. "In the long run that will be to the benefit of national security."

American University's Simpson agreed.

"Open information is an infinitely safer, more reliable guarantee of prosperity, progress, and social justice than the alternative of government censorship," Simpson said.

It is unclear whether the move to increased government use of commercial satellites will help or hinder access to the images. Privatization often leads to limited disclosure of government information. Moving the imaging function to commercial companies could mean that information is either more difficult or more costly to access.

Except in some highly individualized cases, federal courts have found that government information in the hands of a private company is not public information subject to the Freedom of Information Act. In many states, however, information that serves a government function is publicly available even when it is held by a private company.

"More privatization means great privilege is associated with having the information. If you don't have the means, then you don't get it," Simpson said.

But Brender argues that satellite imaging "is counterintuitive to what you would think."

"The more the U.S. government buys, the more products are available to everybody else," he said. "A copy goes into the commercial archives, so anybody can then order that imagery -- almost everything we're shooting -- it's a very open system."

But how this policy ultimately will affect media and the public is still up in the air.

"It takes a long time for law to catch up with technology," RTNDA's Kirby said.