The secretive National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency is rushing to get the latest, high-definition satellite photos of Afghanistan into the hands of U.S. ground troops as they ramp up operations in the country's tangled terrain.
The NGA analysts aren't tapping the government's huge network of highly classified spy satellites; they're getting the pictures from commercial vendors. That's the same stuff pretty much anyone can get, either through free, online programs, such as Google Earth, or by buying it from the same companies supplying Uncle Sam.
It's a remarkable turn, given the warnings that security experts in the USA and worldwide raised a few years ago about giving the entire planet — terrorists and rogue states included — access to high-resolution satellite photos once available only to superpowers.
Last month, the most powerful commercial satellite in history sent its first pictures back to Earth, and another with similar capabilities is set for launch in mid-2009. The imagery provided by those and other commercial satellites has transformed global security in fundamental ways, forcing even the most powerful nations to hide facilities and activities that are visible not only to rival nations, but even to their own citizens.
Although no one disputes that commercial imagery poses threats, it has been embraced in ways few predicted.
"It's created a lot of opportunities to do things we couldn't do with (classified) imagery," says Jack Hild, a deputy director at NGA, which provides imagery and mapping for defense and homeland security operations.
Pictures from government satellites are better than commercial photos, but how much better is a secret. Only people with security clearances generally are allowed to see them. Using commercial products, intelligence agencies can provide imagery for combat troops, which wasn't possible before because of the risk of it reaching enemy hands and even international coalition partners.
Federal agencies use commercial imagery to guide emergency response and inform the public during natural disasters, such as this year's Hurricane Ike. It's also used by government scientists to monitor glacial melting and drought effects in the Farm Belt.
When commercial satellite photos first hit the market, "the gut reaction was, 'We can't allow this imagery to be out there because someone might do us harm with it,' " Hild says. "Are there still bad things that people can do with commercial imagery? Absolutely … but we think the benefits far outweigh the risks."
Other nations share the sentiment. U.S. and foreign government contracts provide critical income for commercial imagery companies, such as Digital Globe and GeoEye — both of which supply photos for Google Earth.
"Most of our revenue (is) from governments," says Mark Brender, vice president of GeoEye, which got half its 2007 revenue from the U.S. government and 35% from foreign governments. "They have a core competency in understanding how to use this technology — and a national security imperative to do so."
In August 2006, the Islamic Army in Iraq circulated an instructional video on how to aim rockets at U.S. military sites using Google Earth.