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Private Eyes in the Sky

15 45 7
23.09.2021

Hours after the Taliban swept into Afghanistan’s capital on August 15, media outlets began using imagery from commercially operated satellites to document the chaos unfolding at Kabul’s international airport in close to real time. Imagery showed enormous traffic jams leading to the compound and crowds of people flooding onto the tarmac and its lone runway. In the days that followed, the press continued to incorporate commercial satellite imagery into its reporting, and military veterans used publicly available satellite images to help former Afghan interpreters navigate around Taliban checkpoints on their way to the airport.

It was not the first time this summer that satellite imagery from private firms played a pivotal role in shaping the public’s understanding of a major national security issue. In late June, researchers at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, part of the California-based Middlebury Institute of International Studies, announced that they had discovered more than 100 new intercontinental ballistic missile silos in western China using images from a private satellite company. Less than a month later, analysts at another think tank reported that they had identified a second Chinese missile field under construction. Both revelations came not from government sources or leaks to the press but from imagery collected by commercially owned and operated satellites.

These events are likely harbingers of a future with fewer secrets. As private satellites proliferate, giving nongovernment entities new tools to monitor and independently verify the claims of politicians, governments are finding themselves with less and less control over sensitive information. But the new age of technology-driven transparency also affords governments new opportunities to gain a strategic advantage—by enabling independent verification of their claims, for instance, or by exposing the illicit or transgressive activities of their adversaries without compromising sources and methods. Whether governments gain or lose from these disclosures depends on what they have to hide—and whether they learn to operate under the assumption that someone is always watching.

Until very recently, only governments had the resources to operate the vast intelligence apparatus needed to monitor the activities of other states. As a result, governments retained a near-monopoly on sensitive intelligence information, allowing them to determine whether and when to reveal their adversaries’ secrets. During the Cuban missile crisis, for instance, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Adlai Stevenson famously confronted his Soviet counterpart with reconnaissance imagery of missile sites in Cuba, exposing covert Soviet activity to the world.

Beginning in the 1970s, however, the proliferation of commercial satellites expanded access to sensitive........

© Foreign Affairs


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