The Senate Intelligence Committee yesterday voted in favor of relaxing commercial satellite imagery resolution restrictions and reviewing the appropriate role of commercial satellite imagery in fulfilling intelligence requirements, according to a committee statement.

The intelligence authorization bill for fiscal year 2014, which passed via vote of 13-2, authorizes intelligence funding and makes the director and inspector general of the National Security Agency (NSA) and the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) subject to presidential appointment and Senate confirmation. The NRO director is currently appointed by the defense secretary with concurrence of the director of national intelligence (DNI). The NSA director is already a presidential-nominated position subject to Senate confirmation.

Lockheed Martin employees work on DigitalGlobe’s WorldView-2 satellite. Photo: DigitalGlobe.

The bill also provides measures to protect against insider threats by adding funds to deploy information technology (IT) detection systems across the intelligence community; permits the DNI to improve the government’s process to investigate (and reinvestigate) individuals with security clearances and institutes provisions that protect the ability of “legitimate” whistleblowers to bring concerns directly to the attention of lawmakers, inspectors general and intelligence community leaders. It also makes permanent a requirement that the executive branch notify Congress when making authorized disclosures of intelligence information to the public.

This could be good news for United States commercial satellite imagery companies, which have been clamoring for the federal government to ease restrictions on sharing imagery. Domestic imagers are currently prohibited from selling imagery with resolution better than 50 cm in panchromatic, or black and white, two meters in the multi-spectral and 7.5 meters in shortwave infrared (IR), according to DigitalGlobe [DGI] Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer (CTO) Walter Scott.

Scott told Defense Daily last week in an interview the company formally petitioned the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in May to ease these resolution restrictions, which it claims hampers industry. Scott said NOAA said in September it would need more time to make its decision. DigitalGlobe next year plans to launch its advanced WorldView-3 satellite capable of quarter-meter resolution panchromatic, one meter resolution in multi-spectral and potentially three-meter resolution in shortwave IR.

Scott said NOAA is the authority for satellite imagery because Congress in 1992 passed the Land Remote Sensing Policy Act, which gave the Commerce Department the authority to regulate commercial remote sensing systems, a good move, he said, considering how the Commerce Department has to balance economic health of industry and national security concerns. WorldView-3 was developed by Ball Aerospace and Technology [BLL].

The problem, Scott said, is that companies today can use airplanes to get 5 cm resolution in 90 countries around the world, in addition to foreign competitors providing 50 cm resolution imagery via satellite. Scott said it “seems crazy” to hold U.S. industry back when it is in a position to be the leading supplier in the industry. Scott said one major competitor is Astrium, a division of European Aeronautic Defence and Space Co. (EADS). Scott said there are “dozens” of other satellites either in operation, or in preparation to be launched, that operate at close to, or in a few cases, better than 50 cm resolution.

“It just makes sense,” to ease restrictions, Scott said. “Technology has moved to the point where we’re capable of doing it and the industry has moved long past where it was when the restrictions were put in place almost 14 years ago.”

Scott argued that limiting domestic satellite imagers from sharing high resolution imagery hurts national security because it deters industry from investing in an era when defense budgets are declining and government will likely become more reliant on its industrial base. Another reason, Scott said, is that the United States regulates domestic providers when it can’t control foreign companies, thus a U.S. company leading the commercial satellite imagery market is advantageous to U.S. security.

“If we’re not competitive internationally, then we’re not in position to make those investments,” Scott said.

Kevin Pomfret, executive director of the Centre for Spatial Law and Policy, which deals with legal and policy issues associated with geospatial data and technology, told Defense Daily yesterday the Defense Department could be against easing satellite image sharing restrictions because, if collected at high quality, high-quality imaging could possibly identify troop numbers or missions. When asked if Congress could simply restrict the sharing of high-quality satellite imagery to allies and friendly nations, Pomfret said the licenses that regulate commercial remote sensing companies don’t designate who can, or can’t, receive certain types of imagery.

“Other than resolution limit, there aren’t many restrictions,” on who they can share it with, Pomfret said. “They have to get approval in some cases under certain agreements to share data, but there aren’t those types of restrictions in terms of ‘You can give it to country A, but not country B,’ other than the resolution.”

Pomfret said a broader point is if the United States needs to have a discussion on national security risks associated with reducing resolution and if they are still relevant in today’s modern satellite imagery marketplace. Pomfret noted that when these restrictions were first enacted, back in 1992, the commercial remote sensing industry was just developing and starting. He also noted that there are many more publically-available imagery platforms, like unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and phones, available today than 21 years ago.

Easing those sharing restrictions could also encourage DigitalGlobe to launch early the GeoEye-2 satellite it acquired when it merged with former satellite imagery provider GeoEye in 2012. DigitalGlobe plans on storing the satellite until it is ready to launch. A source told Defense Daily storing GeoEye-2, which Scott said has the same resolution as WorldView-3, could cost tens of millions of dollars per year. GeoEye-2 was developed by Lockheed Martin [LMT].

The Congressional Research Service (CRS) also seems to encourage a broader discussion on the government’s use of commercial satellite imagery for national security purposes. In an April 23 report on intelligence issues for Congress obtained by Secrecy News, analyst Marshall Curtis Erwin said in today’s environment, there is a greater number of collection targets than what existed during the Cold War and more satellites are required, especially those that can be maneuvered to collect information about a variety of targets. At the same time, Erwin said, the availability of high-quality commercial satellite imagery and its widespread use by federal agencies has raised questions about the extent to which coverage from the private sector can meet the requirements of intelligence agencies.