The Times
They Are A-Changin’

Global Transparency

By Dr. Ray Williamson

In case you had not noticed, the world of remote sensing information delivery is changing rapidly. Once largely the province of experts trained in the arcane skills of processing and analyzing imagery, now remote sensing technology allows the average computer user to go online with Google Earth and search the world for images of far away places with strange sounding names. Or, that same computer user can search out an overhead image of his or her own home and neighborhood.

As Google’s software and extensive imagery database demonstrate, broad-based transparency, just a concept in the 1960s and 1970s when only the United States and the Soviet Union operated high resolution (but secret) satellites, is now a firm reality. This new global transparency, the ability to look in on neighboring countries and distant lands, is rapidly changing our perception of the world by opening a view of regions once off-limits to inquiring eyes.

According to some governments, that ability is just the problem. Officials in countries as politically diverse as South Korea, India, Australia, and the Netherlands have complained to the media and to the U.S. government that Google Earth harms their national security by opening to public scrutiny their secure national facilities, such as air and missile bases. These countries worry that someone, sometime, will use that information to harm their security interests (see Figure 1).

Figure 1 - India’s Trombay-Bhabha Atomic Research Center. IKONOS image courtesy of GeoEye.

In many ways, the complaints of these governments are much too late; the cat was already out of the bag nearly two decades ago when the French launched the first of a series of SPOT satellites into orbit and formed the quasi-private firm SPOT Image to market 10-m resolution data. First Russia and then the United States and Israel followed a few years later with commitments to sell even higher resolution data. Today, most people in the world with sufficient cash or credit can just order up the image they want, either from an American or a French firm.

The growth in availability of sharp overhead imagery will not stop with these few countries. More than a dozen countries now operate digital optical remote sensing systems, a number that will likely more than double within the next decade. Although most of these systems now collect only moderate resolution imagery, the trend toward a proliferation of high resolution systems capable of delivering imagery quickly and efficiently is clearly evident.

Further, engineers have made significant progress in developing high resolution synthetic aperture radar (SAR) systems capable of imaging through dark of night and clouds. Soon Canada will be marketing 3-meter data from RADARSAT-2, and Germany, Italy and other nations are pursuing similar technology.

Thus, the reality is that imagery transparency is growing, not diminishing, despite complaints from some countries about the ready availability of some information. The dual-use nature of satellite remote sensing means that countries will always have concerns about its use. Like other powerful technologies, the marriage of remotely sensed data with geographic information systems and advanced computing capabilities contains threatening as well as constructive elements.

In fact, although the United States has led the advance to ever higher resolution and faster data delivery, its willingness to foster greater global transparency is a relatively recent occurrence and only happened after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Before then, the United States would not allow the operation of civil systems with resolutions better than 10 meters. But diminished perceived threats and the trends of technology development allowed new thinking that began to see advantages in allowing greater transparency by promoting growth in a nascent U.S. remote sensing industry. The U.S. military, which was accustomed to greater protection from overhead satellites, has had to adapt to the new realities of transparency.

Certainly, the same countries that complain about Google’s ease of use would think differently about the use of the same type of imagery to respond to a natural disaster. For example, satellite data were used extensively in the immediate aftermath of the Asian tsunami of December 2004 and Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. In the latter cases, only a few days after the hurricanes passed over, users could call up images on Google Earth to inspect the damage the storms had caused and to direct rescue efforts. Later, similar imagery delivered directly to customers by the imagery companies was used to assist recovery efforts.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union and the United States used their secret remote sensing systems to keep a watchful eye on each other. Such systems were critical in helping to maintain stability and to avoid nuclear holocaust. Today, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have used the imagery to cast light on the development of concentration camps in North Korea (see Imaging Notes, Summer 2005, Vol. 20, No. 2), and on China’s limited nuclear capability (see Imaging Notes, Winter 2006, Vol. 21, No. 1). Publishing such information openly allows an independent view of developments and contributes to wider understanding of activities in other nations.

Google Earth appears threatening to some because it is so easy to use and gives ordinary people the ability to view distant parts of the world. Yet, as currently used, Google Earth is primarily a display mechanism for imagery data. A close look at its capabilities reveals that the data are often too old to reveal recent activities, with the exception of disaster response like that following Hurricane Katrina. Any person intent on harm would seek to obtain much more current data.

Despite the complaints about the increased transparency made possible by information technology and high resolution commercial satellite data, global transparency is being more widely accepted, in large part because of the many uses of the technology to support and sustain society. In the future, look for even sharper imagery, faster delivery to the customer, and new ways to display and use the information satellite systems provide.



Ray A. Williamson is research professor of space policy and international affairs in the Space Policy Institute of The George Washington University (Washington, D.C.) and co-editor, with John C. Baker and Kevin O’Connell, of Commercial Observation Satellites: At the Leading Edge of Global Transparency (Rand and ASPRS, 2001).

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