May 30, 2022

Boots on the Ground, Eyes in the Sky

By Erik Lin-Greenberg

Days after Russia began its invasion of Ukraine, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky delivered an emotional address to the European Parliament, pleading for support. That same day, Ukraine’s vice prime minister and minister of digital transformation, Mykhailo Fedorov, took to Twitter to announce a more targeted—but no less urgent—plea to the executives and corporate board members of commercial satellite companies. Specifically, Fedorov appealed to several leading private satellite firms to provide high-resolution imagery “in real time” to the Ukrainian armed forces to assist them in fending off Russian aggression.

As we wrote in 2021, commercial satellite imagery is dramatically changing the information landscape, particularly when it comes to national security. Gone are the days when only governments could collect advanced intelligence about their rivals and when militaries could keep information about battlefield developments concealed from public view. Now, members of the public can use commercial satellite imagery to reveal activities some governments would rather keep hidden. They have documented North Korea’s expanding nuclear arsenal and exposed human rights abuses such as China’s detention of the Uyghur population in internment camps. In Ukraine, a multitude of actors, including private satellite firms, think tanks, journalists, and amateur sleuths, have used commercial satellite imageryalongside other forms of open-source intelligence to reveal and verify information about military maneuvers, battlefield losses, and Russia’s targeting of civilians.

Satellite imagery is dramatically changing the information landscape, particularly when it comes to national security.

By openly providing information that once would have remained largely secret, commercial satellite imagery has helped galvanize public support for Ukraine, informed Ukrainian military planning and operations, and countered Russian misinformation. But these advantages do not come without risks: the United States’ friends and foes alike will seek to exploit the growing amount of information available to nongovernment users. The United States, its allies, and its partners might find their own sensitive activities subject to surveillance. Pro-Russian actors could likewise exploit open-source satellite information to undercut the Ukrainian defense. Commercial satellite companies could even eventually find themselves in Moscow’s crosshairs. As private satellites go to war, they are transforming the character of modern conflict. Although states still rely overwhelmingly on covert intelligence-gathering methods, Western governments should be sure to account for the opportunities and risks this evolving technology poses as they craft foreign and national security policy.

Read the full article from Foreign Affairs.

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