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A Spy Agency's Challenge: How To Sort A Million Photos A Day

President Barack Obama and his top advisers receive an update in the White House Situation Room on the mission that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011. The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency provided photos of bin Laden's compound, including the imagery in front of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The White House digitally altered those images before releasing this photo.

When the U.S. government took its first satellite photos in 1960, it wasn't easy getting those pictures back to Earth.

After the satellite took the pictures, the film was dropped from space in a capsule attached to a parachute. A military plane with a large hook flew by to collect the capsule in midair over the Pacific Ocean.

"They called the pilots who flew these missions 'star catchers,' because they were catching what looked like stars falling from the sky," said Katie Donegan, with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, or NGA.

She says all this effort might yield a few grainy, black-and-white shots of a Soviet military site.

Fast-forward to 2011. The NGA scored a major coup by locating Osama bin Laden's hideout in Pakistan. The NGA not only took detailed photographs at that time, but it even "went back in time" to look at earlier satellite imagery. This showed the compound under construction, before the roof was put on, and revealed the doorways, the staircases and bedrooms inside the house.

The military built a full-size replica of the interior and the exterior so U.S. Navy SEALs could practice before the actual raid that killed the al-Qaida leader.

A table-top model of bin Laden's compound is on display at NGA headquarters in Fort Belvoir, Va., just off a highway south of Washington, D.C.

The NGA located Osama bin Laden's compound in Pakistan. The agency took detailed photos, and also found archival pictures taken while the house was under construction and before the roof added. This allowed the military to build a life-size replica of the interior and the exterior. Navy Seals practiced on the model before conducting the actual raid. This table-top replica is at NGA headquarters.
/ NGA
The NGA located Osama bin Laden's compound in Pakistan. The agency took detailed photos, and also found archival pictures taken while the house was under construction and before the roof added. This allowed the military to build a life-size replica of the interior and the exterior. Navy Seals practiced on the model before conducting the actual raid. This table-top replica is at NGA headquarters.

A new revolution

Today, the NGA, one of the nation's least-known spy agencies, is undergoing another revolution. It's working closely with private, commercial satellite companies, and this has generated an endless stream of imagery from space.

Dave Gauthier, the director of the NGA's commercial and business group, explains how governments and militaries worldwide will have to adapt their thinking in an environment of constant surveillance.

"We will all be observed every second of every day by something. And so we have to learn how to operate in the open. And it makes strategic surprise very difficult for everybody," said Gauthier.

After a briefing by Gauthier, NPR was invited inside one of the NGA's most sensitive spaces — the operations center — but only to look, not to record.

Dozens of analysts were working. Yet it was dark, and as quiet as a library. A second-floor sky box overlooked the cavernous room. All overhead lights are off. The darkness eliminates glare for analysts who pore over satellite images on their computers.

At the NGA's operations center in Fort Belvoir, Va., analysts review incoming satellite imagery. The government had a monopoly on these pictures for decades. But now the NGA partners with private satellite companies and receives more than 1 million images a day, showing the entire land mass of the earth as it changes every 24 hours.
/ RTKL/David Whitcomb
At the NGA's operations center in Fort Belvoir, Va., analysts review incoming satellite imagery. The government had a monopoly on these pictures for decades. But now the NGA partners with private satellite companies and receives more than 1 million images a day, showing the entire land mass of the earth as it changes every 24 hours.

The sheer volume of incoming imagery these days is staggering. Gauthier explains how the partnership with private satellite companies has changed the game.

"Most people have a notion of a satellite being a school bus-sized instrument," Gauthier said. "What's amazing today is to see that a satellite that does imaging of the Earth is the size of a loaf of bread."

Division of labor

This has led to a two-pronged approach.

The government has owned those very large satellites for decades. They are few in number and focus on specific places. They take high-resolution images of extremely sensitive sites — like nuclear facilities in North Korea or outposts of Islamic State militants.

But in recent years, commercial companies, like Planet of San Francisco, are putting up those much smaller satellites. The photos aren't as detailed. But they cover most everything.

For the past three years, Planet has done something unprecedented. Its 150 satellites circling the globe produce more than 1 million images a day. They show the Earth's entire land mass as it changes every 24 hours.

A satellite image of a North Korean missile launch in May 2019, taken by the commercial satellite company Planet. The U.S. government used to have a monopoly on such photographs. But now Planet, which is one of a few private satellite companies, sells its images to the U.S. government and to private groups.
/ Planet
A satellite image of a North Korean missile launch in May 2019, taken by the commercial satellite company Planet. The U.S. government used to have a monopoly on such photographs. But now Planet, which is one of a few private satellite companies, sells its images to the U.S. government and to private groups.

The government buys those images under a contract with Planet, said Gautheir.

"We can look at the whole haystack, and things that look like needles can gather our attention," he said.

When the NGA finds the needles, it shares them with the military and other intelligence agencies.

Rich Leshner, who runs Planet's office in Washington, explains the company's basic model.

"Imagine laying the Earth flat, taking a picture of it from space with a really cool camera. We do that every day," he said.

The government used to have a monopoly on satellite imagery. But now Planet and a few other companies sell their pictures to a range of customers. They include foreign governments allied with the U.S., as well as private, commercial companies and nonprofit organizations.

Environmentalists track melting sea ice. Aid groups keep tabs of refugee flows. Farmers monitor crops.

One unexpected customer has been local governments that are buying Planet photos to monitor the legal production of marijuana in their communities, said Leshner.

So if all this can be observed from space, what does that mean for individual privacy?

U.S. law limits the level of detail in images taken by commercial satellites so that individuals can't be identified.

"You can't make out any human. You can't make out things that might be tied to them like a license plate on a car," Leshner says of the images taken by Planet satellites. "In terms of detailed, individual, human privacy, we're very confident that the products that we create don't cross over those kinds of boundaries."

The Geospatial-Intelligence Agency stresses that it doesn't look at images of the U.S. unless requested to do so by another government agency. An example would be the Federal Emergency Management Agency assessing damage from a forest fire or a hurricane.

Still, the NGA's Gauthier says people should have a general awareness.

"Most people understand by carrying a cellphone that some of their information is being monitored," Gauthier said. "We just have to recognize that there's an ability to observe more from space than ever before."

Greg Myre is an NPR national security correspondent. Follow him @gregmyre1 .

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.