Earth Observation Security Policy: 1-Yard Dam in a 10-Mile-Wide River

Earth Observation Security Policy: 1-Yard Dam in a 10-Mile-Wide River

Relying on Obscurity for Security

A few weeks ago, in the first week of November 2023, a few curious stories appeared, if only briefly. Those stories centered around U.S. Earth observation (EO) satellite imagery, the companies that provided that imagery, and Gaza. 

Summarized, the stories relayed the following narrative: U.S. satellite EO companies such as Planet were prohibited from selling the “highest-resolution imagery of the conflict.” In this case, “highest-resolution” meant anything 40 centimeters per pixel or above. It stems from a 1997 U.S. legal amendment (the Kyl-Bingaman Amendment), updated to 40 cm in 2020.

Reporters noted that Planet complied, telling a few subscribers “...that during active conflicts, it may modify pictures published to the archive.” The conflict referenced is the one between Hamas and Israel. Whether Planet would have done this without a legally compelling reason is unclear. But that question is academic in the presence of the amendment.

The amendment’s rationale, according to the Quartz article, is weirdly specific and very quaint:

“Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona said at the time that the bill reflected the “keen understanding that images of Israel represent a unique and potentially ominous threat to its national security.”

The amendment’s specificity is puzzling, as images of the U.S. or any of its allies could also “represent a unique and potentially ominous threat” to their national security. The U.S. Department of Defense and its colleges and offices have constantly made many mountains from the commercial imagery molehill. From a 2004 Naval War College paper:

Commercially available satellite imagery represents a growing threat to U.S. military operations. To mitigate this threat, the operational commander has a variety of techniques or methods to consider during planning. Some mitigation methods, such as shutter control,  diplomacy, or buy-to-deny, require approval and coordination with outside agencies. 

Russia, in October 2022, seemed to agree with this assessment but has threatened more direct mitigation methods:

On October 27, a senior Russian foreign ministry official warned that commercial satellites “may become a legitimate target for retaliation.”

In that instance, the ministry referred to commercial satellites generally, not just EO satellites. However, Russian and U.S. military folks agree that commercial satellites negatively impact their security. So, they must put in place restrictions to keep others from seeing things. Otherwise, commanders have to implement mitigation methods.

But do those U.S.-imposed limits on U.S. EO companies work? Those limits might have been adequate in a world where only the U.S. exists. But in the real world, probably not. 

The EO genie has been out of the bottle since before 1997. A 1996 article from the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs (WRMEA) noted this logical and quickly reached deduction regarding the Kyl-Bingaman Amendment:

Ironically, if Congress and the president support the new legislation, Israel’s national security interests might suffer, because the Israeli government will lose a measure of control over who images Israel and to whom that imagery is made available. Without the amendment, it is likely that international customers will turn to the United States for their imaging needs, but with the amendment these same customers likely will look to other imagery suppliers who do not maintain the same national security safeguards for Israel as does the United States under Presidential Directive 23.

In other words, bad actors will go to companies or other nations to get their imagery. Some of those companies will see no drawback in providing the imagery to them. That observation was made when satellite imagery was less ubiquitous than it is currently, nearly 30 years later. That was because far fewer EO satellites were deployed in 1997, about 30 (including optical, infrared, meteorological, and radar), than in 2023. Most of the EO satellite operators of satellites deployed in 1997 tended to be government. For example, 13 (~50%) of those 30 were for Russian military missions.

The Genie is Too Big to Bottle

In 2023, the EO satellite business has made the WRMEA observation more relevant, not less. 

More EO-focused satellite operators exist in 2023 (112 deploying nearly 400 EO satellites in 2023 alone). Forty-two of those operators have deployed at least 200 satellites with optical sensors during the year. Most operators, like Planet, offer their imagery commercially. If we expand the duration to 2019, at least 236 EO operators have deployed over 1,100 EO satellites since then. More than half, about 650 deployed satellites, had optical payloads.

In 2023, just two EO companies with optical satellites were U.S. companies (of 42 companies/organizations). Those two companies had deployed less than half of the optical satellites deployed in 2023 (so far). Since 2019, 8 of 118 optical satellite operators have originated from the U.S. Those 8 U.S. companies deployed less than half of the slightly more than 650 EO optical satellites during those years. 

The remaining 110 operators came from countries such as Argentina, China, India, Iran, Japan, Poland, Russia, South Korea, and Turkey. A few nations on that list have ambitions counter to U.S. interests. They might even offer their imagery products for less than what U.S. companies charge.

Those numbers show that 1) U.S. organizations comprise barely 7% of all the world’s optical sensor satellite operators, and 2) U.S. optical satellites are not even half of all optical satellites deployed since 2019. This means that 3) there are plenty of “other imagery suppliers who do not maintain the same national security safeguards for Israel” (or the U.S.) that U.S. companies must comply with. And the people shopping for that imagery are probably looking for good enough products.

Marketing as Security?

This aspect of U.S. national security relies on imagery scarcity. It might have made more sense in 1997 (although the WRMEA observation gives the impression otherwise). But the fact is that in 2023, those images are available from AT LEAST 110 non-U.S. organizations (about half of which are offering their products commercially), highlighting the wrongheadedness of that philosophy. 

Maybe it wasn’t (and isn’t) about national security, however. In some ways, it appears to be a marketing exercise, with the force of law backing it. Back then, there were already workarounds to get satellite imagery. Also, there were fewer U.S. EO companies to complain about the limitations in 1996, if only because the DoD was also a generous customer. The DoD is still a customer of U.S. commercial EO companies today, but it’s not the only one. 98% of the optical satellites deployed since 2019 are for commercial purposes. 

The amendment in 1997 didn’t hurt commercial EO companies back then, nor did it impact that many. In 2023, however, there are more U.S. commercial EO companies than ever (not just optical), some of whom have the DoD as a customer. But the DoD is perhaps not dispensing the large amounts of cash it did in 1997. Some of EO companies are startups. They must comply with the amendment and other U.S. limitations on U.S. EO products.

The challenge posed to the U.S. commercial space EO companies isn’t the amendment. It’s the idea that people are more secure by hobbling the products U.S. companies can provide. Those national security-inspired limitations have no impact on the more numerous global competitors to those U.S. companies, except for eliminating a potential competition vector. 

Complying with those limits shows legitimate EO customers that perhaps U.S. companies can’t be trusted, which pushes them toward the competitors. The increase in customers provides those competitors with more resources to improve their collection technology (higher resolution, wider spectrum, etc.) because–why wouldn’t they?

The EO security limitations are the equivalent of placing a yard-long dam in the middle of a 10-mile-wide (and widening) river. The limitations aren’t accomplishing the stated goal (aside from enforcing compliance), but that’s never stopped government national security before. It will be interesting to see how this plays out as more competitors from other nations offer their products.

A New Series of Dashboards: Smallsats!

For those interested in the smallsat industry, I’ve created a new set of dashboards all about smallsat activities named Smallsat Industry Ace. The first dashboard (of seven) looks like this.

The above is only an image and not interactive. If you’d like to see an interactive demonstration and the layout/information of the smallsat dashboards, just head to this page:

Note that wherever there are days, the “real” product shows those in quarters, months, and/or years.

The dashboard series covers the years 2019 through the present. They provide information about smallsat-dedicated and rideshare launches and the number and activities of satellites with a 600 kg or less mass. 

Those interested in Smallsat Industry Ace can subscribe here:

For those wondering what each dashboard covers, know that these dashboards don’t provide raw data (which I believe are of niche interest). Instead, they are summaries of various smallsat industry aspects that I think are useful and valuable for people to know. The following briefly describes each one:

  1. Smallsat Summary: Monthly Smallsat Deployments, Services Smallsats Provide, Mass Ranges, and Nations Operating Smallsats
  2. Smallsat-Dedicated Launches: The kind and number of rockets nations used for dedicated smallsat launches only, overall smallsat launches, launch failures
  3. Smallsat Launches/Smallsat Deployments: Overall launches for smallsat deployments, including rideshare, a history of those launches since 2019 versus the satellites those launches deploy
  4. Smallsat Mass Deployments: What nations and rockets are launching the most estimated mass, in kilograms, into orbit
  5. Nations & Companies Operating Smallsats: A treemap depicting the number of smallsats that nations/organizations are operating in orbit
  6. Smallsat Services Statistics by Nation: The kinds of services and the number of satellites that provide them, broken down by nation and service
  7. Smallsat Spaceport Activities: Where are smallsat rockets launched from, and how many are launched from those spaceports

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