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The not-so-secret value of sharing commercial geospatial and open-source information

Satellite space
Getty Images
Satellite space

Two years ago, reports surfaced that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was detaining hundreds of thousands of China’s Muslim Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in so-called “re-education” camps. Chinese authorities initially denied the existence of these camps until human rights organizations and media sources provided indisputable evidence that they do exist. 

Discovering human rights abuses such as this would be nearly impossible without access to commercial geospatial intelligence (GEOINT) provided by satellite imagery that established visual evidence of the camps. Beyond the discovery of the camps, GEOINT also provided the ability to track developments at the camps by comparing images taken over time.

Commercial GEOINT is unclassified and exists in the public domain. The information is accessible to commercial customers, the public and nongovernmental organizations. It is available to the federal government for purchase. 

Space information services use large constellations of small satellites with autonomous image processing that, when combined, have revolutionized GEOINT capabilities. Consequently, commercial GEOINT will play an increasingly integral role in the near future, as space launch services continue to become more cost effective and as artificial intelligence/machine learning-based imagery and processing technology continues to advance.

Here’s why: First, a picture is worth a thousand words. Second, GEOINT facilitates in-depth analysis and comparative storytelling when images are stitched together over time. Every day, new stories hit the press that take advantage of this powerful informational tool.

If, however, these images were captured by U.S. space assets and analyzed by the Intelligence Community (IC), it is unlikely that the public would ever see them or reap the benefits of the accompanying analysis. It is equally unlikely that departments and agencies not well plugged into the IC could make meaningful use of this imagery. 

But imagine if the IC fully harnessed, analyzed and fused information and imagery from not just classified sources but also nonclassified sources such as those controlled by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and from commercial GEOINT to produce unclassified analyses based in part on publicly available information. The resulting product could be more easily shared with federal departments and agencies, government partners and perhaps even the public. This also would enable more information sharing with friendly nations beyond the current Five Eyes construct of the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand.

Setting aside for now discussion on integrating nonclassified government satellite imagery into intelligence products (and the policy and legal challenges of doing so), the U.S. government and the IC have made regular, if infrequent, use of some commercial GEOINT. For example, the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA) has had a Commercial GEOINT Strategy since at least 2018. And the Space Force may be interested in making better use of GEOINT and other commercial partnerships.

Running with this mission would create an opportunity to better develop and define the Space Force’s mission portfolio. Because it is so new, the Space Force — itself an IC member — is uniquely positioned to establish close relationships with NASA and NOAA because of the shared difficulties inherent in operating in the space domain. Although members of the IC have long operated in space, the Space Force would not be encumbered with a legacy of rigid lane-keeping and could have more flexibility of action than its pure IC counterparts. After all, there is nothing quite like a clean slate to inspire innovative solutions to legacy challenges. And we know that 21st century geotechnical strategic competition requires that we invest, innovate and rapidly incorporate new critical capabilities.

The same logic holds regarding the Space Force establishing relationships with the commercial space imagery industry. Indeed, the Space Force could establish itself as an important interlocutor between industry and government akin to the role of the U.S. Coast Guard.  

COVID-19’s disruptive impact drove the government to begin more fully capitalizing on commercial GEOINT. Specifically, NGA boosted its reliance on unclassified data for projects because telework kept many intelligence professionals at home. However, there are risks in using commercially available imagery because foreign adversaries theoretically can more easily target, jam, dazzle and even destroy these capabilities. Further, commercial capabilities could provide foreign adversaries with the same data, which would threaten the U.S. competitive imagery edge. Therefore, commercial GEOINT must be viewed as a force multiplier and not a substitute for existing government systems.         

But even with risks, increasing the use of commercial GEOINT has important advantages. Easier and faster access to imagery data could better equip policymakers to address security challenges beyond traditional defense missions, such as climate change; illegal, unreported fishing; emergency and disaster response; mass migration; and pandemic mitigation. Commercial GEOINT also could allow for easier information sharing with the states, non-defense entities such as federal law enforcement and, as appropriate, industry, the public and foreign allies.

The fusion of commercial GEOINT imagery with quality, open-source information would allow federal analysts to produce open-source intelligence (OSINT) analysis akin to IC’s all-source analysis. In a fast-paced world marked by speedy decision-making, powered by the data processing boom and impending commercial space boom, such analysis could be a cost-saving game changer. 

Developing informational products using commercial GEOINT also could help prevent unintended disclosure of our sensitive satellite resources and capabilities when U.S. leaders want to acknowledge certain world events. For example, had former President Trump’s tweet about a failed Iranian rocket launch used a commercial GEOINT image rather than one from a reported NGA intelligence slide, the presumptive spy satellite that provided imagery for the slide would not have been identified by amateur space enthusiasts. While it is unlikely that other presidents will feel compelled to similarly release information that could illuminate intelligence sources and methods, in an ideal world, when briefing senior decision-makers the IC would provide a commercially-derived GEOINT image and unclassified analysis in case the briefing recipient finds value in sharing it with foreign partners or the public.

After 9/11, there was discussion about breaking down the proverbial wall between intelligence and law enforcement. There has been mixed success in doing so, and some clear missteps along the way, including with the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. But ultimately, closer integration and information sharing have contributed to keeping Americans safer. The IC should consider how best to break down this wall to more fully embrace the value provided by commercial GEOINT and OSINT. Doing so would provide the means to cater to new stakeholders, at the unclassified level. It also would help the United States nurture international relationships and could be a confidence booster to the burgeoning space infrastructure industry.  

Of course, this means prioritizing scarce human capital for an IC pulled in many competing directions. But beyond the cost of purchasing  commercial GEOINT, with just a small investment in a few key agencies — especially with respect to artificial intelligence  and machine learning — the United States will be better positioned to meet the full spectrum of its security challenges and those of its allies and partners around the world.

Dr. Mir Sadat has more than 25 years of experience in private industry, the U.S. Navy, Department of Defense and National Security Council. He is founding editor-in-chief of Space Force Journal and co-author of “U.S. Space Policies for the New Space Age: Competing on the Final Economic Frontier.” Follow him on Twitter @Dr_Sadat_USN.

Mike Sinclair is a Coast Guard judge advocate with over 22 years of active duty operational and legal experience, including a year as a deputy legal adviser at the National Security Council. He is a federal executive fellow at Brookings Institution, adjunct professor at George Washington University Law School and editorial board member of the Space Force Journal.

The views presented here are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the policy or position of the U.S. government.

Tags Donald Trump Intelligence analysis Intelligence gathering disciplines Open-source intelligence

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