To keep foothold in government market, satellite imaging companies have to gain trust

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Cardillo: The natural tendency in the intelligence community is to “equate value with classification.”

TAMPA, FLA. — The golden age of open source has arrived. A thriving commercial imagery industry has been welcome by U.S. intelligence agencies but it also has brought a new set of challenges.

Commercially available satellite data has never been more sophisticated or affordable, but vendors looking to sell to the government have to break down trust barriers.

There is no denying that intelligence analysts were raised to view unclassified data as less valuable than classified information, said Robert Cardillo, director of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency. NGA supplies geospatial data to the nation’s spy agencies and to the Defense Department.

The culture is not easy to change even in this era of rapid technological innovation, Cardillo said during a roundtable with reporters Monday at the GEOINT symposium.

“We have launched ‘pathfinders’ with open data. We have made progress,” Cardillo said.

A 35-year veteran of the geospatial intelligence business, Cardillo said the natural tendency in the community is to “equate value with classification.” Early in his career, he was told a “secret piece of information is good. Top secret is better, it doesn’t matter what it is. And ‘special access’ is even better.”

And even though “we know that’s not true anymore, if you were raised that way you have certain muscle memories, you default to ‘I have to go chase the top secret piece,’” he said.

Analysts increasingly are working with unclassified data. But agencies are finding that as the industry continues to improve the quality of geospatial products, U.S. enemies are using open source data, for instance, to create “counter-narratives” to undermine U.S. military campaigns.

Doctored imagery is a concern, said Cardillo. “Facts aren’t what they used to be.” Typically after the Pentagon releases satellite images of areas it has struck, “I guarantee I can find counter narratives where there is collateral damage,” he said. “That’s always been going on.” As the industry produces better products, “people are going to get a lot better at this. Let’s face it, in a world in which we tend to live in our own news cocoon, it’s really easy to reinforce somebody’s internal narrative with a doctored picture. I’m very worried about it.”

NGA was an early beneficiary of the commercial imagery boom. It became DigitalGlobe’s first customer and signed a 10-year contracts with the company, now known as Maxar. Since then, the industry has been revolutionized by new entrants that rely on private funding to build constellations of small satellites that can be customized to deliver just about any type of imaging or signals intelligence.

As NGA director, “I love all these companies,” Cardillo said. “I want the market to work … but government shouldn’t be their first customer. We should be their second customer.”

Cardillo said he is agnostic about which commercial providers ultimately survive. “I don’t want to drive that market. I want to only be a customer. I’ve invested in Planet, Google, Maxar,” he said. Those investments have paid off, he added. However, “we have no better mission partner than the National Reconnaissance Office. For all of my interest and love of the commercial market explosion, I am very well served by NRO.”

That said, a “vibrant space based commercial imaging market is good for my agency,” Cardillo noted.

NGA last year introduced a smartphone app, Tearline, as a test for how the agency could deliver unclassified geospatial intelligence to verified government users via tablets and mobile devices.

It was marketed as a means to provide  “high-quality, original content around the clock to senior officials, whether drinking coffee at home in the morning, waiting at the airport or driving around town,” NGA official Chris Rasmussen, said in a news release. “As GEOINT shifts toward a more unclassified data future, NGA has an opportunity to tell more stories at the protected yet unclassified level,” he said.

Cardillo on Tuesday suggested that Tearline has not taken off as might have been expected. “I don’t know that it will succeed,” he said. “And I’m ok with that. It’s a pathfinder.”

NGA adviser Mike Manzo, who is director of intelligence, threat and analytic solutions at General Dynamics Mission Systems, said the intelligence community is being challenged to figure out “when to leverage the unclassified data and when to turn to the more exquisite classified information.”

“It is incredible the amount of knowledge you can gain from unclassified sources,” Manzo told SpaceNews in an interview at the GEOINT symposium. “With small satellite constellations, the revisit times are faster,” but relying on commercial data is a matter of policy and what decisions have to be made based on that data. “Typically decisions are not made based on unclassified data,” said Manzo. “If it’s classified, you know the provenance of the data. With unclassified, I am not controlling the data from source to exploitation.”

When national security is concerned, there is too much fear of intelligence being compromised, Manzo said. “With unclassified, you have to at least acknowledge that somewhere along transmission something could have changed. And that’s why making decisions based on that data is somewhat of a risk.”

More commercial companies eventually will become NGA partners, but it will take time, he said. “It’s very difficult to gain trust and extraordinarily easy to lose it.”

Planet’s Co-Founder and Chief Strategy Officer Robbie Schingler has been at the forefront of bringing commercial data to the government and has received NGA funding for pilot programs. “There’s not that trust yet,” Schingler told SpaceNews. “We have been trying to show the U.S. government what’s the art o the possible, what could you do with unclassified information feeds.”

Many of the military’s intelligence needs today “can be met with commercial data,” he said. It should be noted that the U.S. government “created this entire industry,” he said. “There’s no other place in the world that has more data than NGA. They’ve been doing this for a long time. They have the treasure trove of data.”

Schingler predicts it will take at least a decade for the culture to shift, “for the government’s architecture to allow for the injection of commercial and unclassified information feeds.”

In other countries, governments are building “commercial-first architectures” and then they are adding a classified piece, he said. In the United States, it’s the other way around.