Classified Imagery Is the Problem

The Space News editorial “Take A Fresh Look” [July 13, page 16] on the demise of the National Applications Office of the
Department of Homeland Security (DHS) ignores an obvious solution to the problems that plagued the office from its inception: commercial satellite imagery.

The editorial rightly details the concerns associated with greater use of highly classified imagery intelligence systems for domestic law enforcement and homeland security purposes and DHS’s attempts at allaying civil liberty and privacy fears. It misses the point, however, in implying that classified systems hold some special key to solving many of the imagery and geospatial information needs of federal, state, local, municipal and tribal officials. The truth is those classified systems have inherent disadvantages for the homeland security sector – the most glaring of which is that information derived from those systems cannot be easily shared. It’s all classified.

State-of-the-art commercial imagery systems from GeoEye and DigitalGlobe have the right resolution, geo-location accuracy and revisit times to areas of interest over the United States and its territories necessary to meet most if not all domestic security information needs – and they can meet them at the fraction of the cost of big national systems. The single-most important attribute of commercial imagery satellite systems, however, is that the resulting imagery products are unclassified and shareable across multiple levels of government. If you wear a government badge, you can see the imagery. Simple as that. The overwhelming majority of law enforcement and first responder officials do not have security clearances – and many would rather not bother with the federal government’s process for obtaining one. The greater use of commercial satellite imagery would obviate the need for cumbersome classified information release processes – many of which hinder the use of sensitive information in the field or delay the dissemination of information to the tactical level and render it operationally useless.

While civil liberties advocates may criticize the greater use of commercial imagery as a legalistic parlor trick, the fact is that geospatial platforms like Google Earth and Microsoft’s Bing Maps have normalized the public’s perception of high-resolution remote sensing products and largely assuaged privacy qualms, though they admittedly linger in some quarters. It would be far easier to establish homeland security commercial imagery use procedures – given its inherent unclassified nature – to address those issues than it would to untangle the many long-standing legal and policy issues associated with classified system data use. In taking a fresh look, lawmakers and administration officials need only look under their noses for the answer that’s always been there – commercial satellite imagery.

Dennis Jones

Former Vice President of Business Development and Government Affairs,


Charleston, S.C.