The Bird’s Judging Eye of Satellite Imagery

The following is a special blog feature in conjunction with our latest issue of  Volume ‘Guilty Landscapes’. You can read more about the issue here.

For decades satellite imagery has provided data for, and insights into, a huge amount of different fields of science such as ecology, geosciences, meteorology, and urban planning. Nowadays the usage of satellite imagery has increased overwhelmingly as consumer applications have found their way to the market – think about Google maps, navigation apps and weather forecasts. Correspondingly governments have found the use of the footage interesting for a broad range of practices, both malicious and positive. Positive applications include infrastructural planning, mapping of urban expansions and ecological surveillance, though more nefarious uses have been featured frequently over the last few months: malicious military practices, observed and recorded by satellites, have been revealed to the public via the media. The fact that satellite imagery is increasingly used when it comes to media coverage and public presentations concerning politics and warfare shows the established importance of satellites for a broad range of purposes.

While during the Second World War art historians were employed to study aerial photo footage in order to distinguish, pinpoint, and mark the enemies’ military complexes and targets, nowadays similar footage is discussed in public and explained by experts in order to prove a certain point – mostly about another country’s military activities. Still present in the back of our minds is Colin Powell’s February 5th 2003 ‘before-and-after’ cosmetics commercial-inspired presentation of Saddam Hussein’s alleged nuclear facilities and presence of decontamination vehicles that ought to suggest the presence of chemical weapons. The accuracy of this method has proven itself not to be infallible or invulnerable to manipulation, as the analysis of and findings during the Iraqi invasion, its aftermath, and other armed conflicts have made quite clear that interpretation of satellite footage can be false or slanted. However, still today the same argumentation is being used to accuse Iran and North Korea of similar practices.

In 2003, US Secretary of State Colin Powell makes the case for an Iraq invasion, based partly on evidence from satellite imagery.

On the other hand there is an emerging counter-application of satellite imagery: the George Clooney-related Satellite Sentinel Project (SSP) recently proved satellite imagery to be useful in observing potential humanitarian issues, such as possible threats to civilians, mapping the movement of displaced people, detecting bombed and razed villages, or other evidence of (pending) mass violence. This last issue was addressed when SSP satellite imagery revealed evidence of the assault on and destruction of much of Abyei town in Sudan. The US government furthermore was able to show the exact weaponry that the Syrian government was using against its civilians. The possibility of (almost) real-time coverage and surveillance of such events has made possible swift measures and actions that come closer in preventing mass slaughter and humanitarian disasters in the near future.

Actor and SSP founder George Clooney arrested at a protest against Sudanese regime’s food blockade.

At the same time rules, regulations, and laws on this subject are close to non-existent, making the usage of footage free for any purpose. Of course governments have been spying on each other since the launch of the first satellites, but nowadays the accessibility of the images on the market and on the internet increasingly facilitate the potential for malicious use. When we consider the possibility of exposing restricted footage of facilities or information it is obvious that not only privacy of civilians is compromised, also secret information of (national) safety is concerned – think about nuclear power plants and military infrastructure, or the negative consequences of some Wikileaks footage. Furthermore commercial enterprises can use gathered information for any purpose they desire, of which spying on other businesses seems relatively innocent but still can has severe outcomes. Observing the progress that a competitor is making on its new production facility, keeping track of competition’s efforts to install its communications network or being able to determine the energy output of a competitor’s power plant, are all possibilities which rivalling businesses can use to gain information in a peculiar way, free of any possibility of prosecution, but with possibly great benefits or consequences.

In 2006, Google satellite imagery reveals that Iran has expanded its uranium enrichment facilities.

In conclusion, thus, it can be said that the market for satellite imagery is rapidly expanding and advancing, providing manifold opportunities for its use. No image bears an inherent judgement, but guilty minds can employ guilty practices. All we can say is that lawmakers should catch up and hopefully positive initiatives and uses will outweigh the cons.

You can read other articles from Guilty Landscapes herehere, and here.

Constructive Guilt