USA, 09 May 2007: The intelligence community is concerned about the widespread availability of satellite images on sites like Google Earth. The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency says the government may act to restrict distribution, the Associated Press reports.
“If there was a situation where any imagery products were being used by adversaries to kill Americans, I think we should act,” Vice Adm. Robert Murrett, director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, said Tuesday in a rare interview at his office in Bethesda, Md.
“I could certainly foresee circumstances in which we would not want imagery to be openly disseminated of a sensitive site of any type, whether it is here or overseas,” he said.
The NGIA’s mission to provide information on insurgencies, nuclear sites, terror camps or troop movements, but the agency also is helping after natural disasters.
Two private companies – Digital Globe and Geoeye – have launched satellites and now with help from the agency to the tune of $1 billion, the companies are launching higher resolution sats this year.
The government is requiring the companies to degrade the quality of the imagery to a half-meter resolution, so that nothing smaller than a half-meter can be seen in the images.
John Pike, a satellite expert with Globalsecurity.org, said the government has been reluctant to invoke restrictions. “They have a real dilemma,” he said. “If the area they are trying to protect is too broad, then surely there would be some news organization that will take them to court on prior restraint or some other freedom-of-the-press infringement. If the area that is being protected is too narrowly defined, you are giving away the secret location,” Pike said.
But as with so many things on the Internet, the cat may already be out of the bag.
Steven Aftergood, a secrecy expert with the Federation of American Scientists, said the growth of commercial satellite companies domestically and internationally may make it impossible for officials like Murrett to restrict the dissemination of imagery.
“I can foresee circumstances where they might wish they could. There can be cases where imagery could jeopardize the security of U.S. military operations,” Aftergood said. “But this cat may be out of the bag for good. It’s just not clear that the legal or other tools needed to restrict disclosure are available.”