By Simon Sharwood
21 Mar 2014
Comment That the US and other nations operate spy satellites capable of taking very detailed photographs of Earth is not in doubt. But the idea that those satellites have been pressed into service to find downed Malaysian Airlines flight MH370, and that it is therefore possible to infer some of the satellites’ capabilities, is very debatable.
That’s not stopped some of the media from suggesting that the reason Australia’s Maritime Safety Authority did not mention the source of the images it used as the basis for its decision to explore the Southern Ocean, was because to do so would reveal that they came from a military satellite.
In these post-Snowden days, such hints are serious stuff. The public knows a lot more about the scale and scope of US surveillance efforts than it did this time last year. Interest in such information remains keen.
But speculation the candidate MH370 debris was found by spooksats is obviously dubious, because the images ASMA has released are clearly marked as having their copyright assigned to DigitalGlobe, a US-based outfit known to operate at least three imaging satellites and which last year boasted it can, on request, photograph anywhere on Earth every 12 hours.
Also a well-established fact is that the US imaging satellite operators like DigitalGlobe are prevented from letting the public access the highest-resolution photographs their craft can capture. Those restrictions are made by the US government and DigitalGlobe appealed against them in September 2013.
As this report to a US Senate committee illustrates, that request has been taken seriously, largely for commercial reasons:
The Committee understands that a commercial data provider has requested licensing approval to collect and sell on the open market, electro-optical imagery with a ground sample distance of 0.25-meter. Recognizing the ability of U.S. commercial imagery providers to contribute more substantially to the national security mission at a lower cost point, and consistent with the U.S. policy of enabling U.S. companies to maintain a leadership position in this industry, the Committee encourages the GEOINT functional manager and the DNI to promptly review this licensing request. The Committee is concerned that foreign commercial imagery providers may soon be able to provide imagery at or better than the currently allowed commercial U.S. resolution limit of 0.5 meters. As foreign firms approach or surpass this level of resolution, current restrictions on U.S. commercial imagery data providers put the United States at a competitive disadvantage and may harm an industrial base that is important to national security.
Perhaps DigitalGlobe’s fleet can do even better than .25 metre resolution. If it can, it is entirely reasonable to assume it would be shared with the US’s partners in the “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing alliance, one of which is Australia. And Australia operates a Defence Imagery and Geospatial Organisation (DIGO) that boasts its capabilities include “the process of examining an image collected from satellites or aircraft to identify features, describe activity and interpret what is occurring at a given place on the Earth’s surface.”
AMSA has cited DIGO as a source.
For what it is worth, it is known that the US government rents satellites. In 2013 it even leased a Chinese satellite, according to US News.
It’s therefore entirely plausible that DIGO and its ilk around the world regularly receive 0.25 metre or better resolution images from a DigitalGlobe or other commercial satellite and that its find of the “credible” candidate for MH370 debris is the result of business as usual, not special efforts.
It is conceivable that US authorities spotted the candidate debris using classified, never-for-public-eyes sources and then made it known where those searching for MH370 should look. It’s also a little bit plausible, because while DigitalGlobe has created a crowdsourced image database to help the search for MH370, it appears that effort is not the source of yesterday’s find.
If the US went to such lengths to conceal its capabilities, that’s a matter for wider debate.
But speculation something secret has been pressed into service is just that. It’s also worth considering the track record of the media outlet offering this analysis, as it has twice of late jumped to alarmist conclusions about intelligence matters. Fairfax media, the source of the notion that MH370 was found by spooksats this week, followed Crikey by reporting in July last year that a subsidiary of Telstra, Australia’s dominant telco, had agreed to US surveillance of voice traffic on a submarine cable. The “secret document” Crikey uncovered was actually a pro-forma document any submarine cable operator landing in the US signs. Those documents all authorise surveillance, so the notion Telstra alone had thrown open its digital doors was dubious.
In November 2013, another report suggested Telstra’s purchase of deep packet inspection products represented a surveillance effort. As we pointed out at the time, it would be of more interest if a major telco did not operate deep-packet inspection kit as the absence of such tools would indicate lax management of mission-critical networks.
The Reg, and your correspondent, make mistakes. But mistakes like the ones recorded here are particularly unhelpful if they heighten public paranoia.
Happily, the source of the spooksat speculation has calmed down and reported on the existence of DigitalGlobe and even extracted a confirmation it is the source of the images that are sparking so much hope for information about MH370.
If only that story had come before the spooky speculation.