Publications Books

Satellite Imagery Control: an American Dilemma Paris : Ifri, Centre français sur les Etats-Unis, CFE, 2002. - 51 p.

Le contrôle de l'imagerie satellitaire, un dilemme américain

What happens when an information technology moves from being used exclusively by government intelligence agencies to being made widely available?

Satellite imagery, which has been kept secret since the time of the cold war, is now being marketed by companies with orbit observation systems. Though the economic success of these companies is still unconfirmed, the emergence of imagery on the international scene is already causing problems. Imagery allows for richer and more precise information to be distributed. The relations among states are developing in a more transparent environment, which would have both stabilizing and destabilizing effects.

What consequences should be feared in particular? The US, because of the important role its companies play in developing this market and because of their great involvement in international affairs, is facing a dilemma: it wants to control this source of information for security reasons, while allowing its companies to become dominant in the new market. How much leeway should it give the image suppliers? What financial support should it provide to the companies ?

Very diverse mechanisms for control of satellite imagery have been considered to address the possibility of destabilizing or aggressive use of the imagery. At the beginning of October 2001, the Administration replaced them on short notice with a very innovative measure. By buying on an exclusive basis all of the satellite photos of Afghanistan taken by the only company that currently produces high-resolution commercial imagery, the Pentagon is preventing other parties from gaining access to this source of information, while providing considerable financial support to the company. An agreement similar to a buyout will be proposed, and undoubtedly accepted, by US companies entering this market in the future.

This kind of action confirms the importance of the connection between the US commercial imagery companies and the federal authorities. It does not appear to favor the emergence of mass private demand, which is the only thing able to ensure market operation according to the private sector rules. This action does not settle the question of foreign imagery companies, which will definitely not accept the exclusivity contracts proposed by the US Department of Defense.

In a working group formed last spring, the new Administration continues to consider how to control the distribution of images in times of international crisis. It is now facing such a case on a major scale.


Satellite Imagery Control: An American Dilemma