Disarmament Insight


Friday, 19 October 2007

Satellites of Love?

"Satellite's gone up to the sky
Things like that drive me out of my mind
I watched it for a little while
I like to watch things on TV
Satellite of love ..."

In our third volume of research, Andreas Persbo and Michael Crowley from the London-based Verification Research, Training and Information Centre (VERTIC) looked at the roles Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) play in the monitoring and verification of international arms control and disarmament agreements. They observed that:

"one area of NGO activity that has not been adequately studied has been the crucial role played by the NGO community in monitoring, and in some cases verifying, international agreements. Indeed, non-governmental monitoring, sometimes referred to as "citizens' reporting", "inspection by the people" or "civil society monitoring", has become an important element in the international community's evaluation of how effectively states implement their treaty obligations on a wide range of issues."
Once upon a time, technologies like satellite imaging were restricted to a few governments, and during the Cold War were initially harnessed for surveillance of the adversary's territory and activities. Eventually, satellites emerged as important elements of arms control verification. And, over time, the cost of space satellite imaging technology has come down and been increasingly commercialized for a huge range of uses - to the point where an ordinary schmo like me can look up Google Earth (which almost seamlessly blends satellite and aerial imagery) on the internet for free to see if I can see my home (I can).

Unsurprisingly, some civil society actors have woken up to the fact that such technologies could be helpful in trying to hold governments accountable for their actions, for instance for human rights violations or failure to protect civilians in conflict. In June of this year, for instance, Amnesty International launched a website in partnership with the University of California at Berkeley to keep watch over imperiled villages in the Darfur region of Sudan, and to post images online in order to enlist help to prevent violence. These images show, for instance, before and after photographs of scores of apparently destroyed settlements.

Earlier this month, the journal Science reported that its publisher, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), had released similar satellite images of Myanmar, showing that dozens of villages in the eastern part of the country had been uprooted or razed to the ground. Science displayed images of a village near Kewy Kee in east Myanmar photographed by a commercial satellite on 5 May 2004, which had disappeared in an image taken on 23 February 2007.

It remains to be seen how effective such images will be in motivating the international community to step in to prevent such violence. But commercial satellite imagery is certainly very powerful in documenting abuses. And, it can provide plausible alternative interpretations to those put forward by government officials. Occasionally, it might even embarrass the intelligence community. One organization doing good work in this regard is the Federation of American Scientists, which has used openly available satellite imagery - some of it from Google - to pinpoint the launch, for instance, of new Chinese nuclear ballistic missile submarines.

A few weeks ago I was invited to a conference in Italy to talk about developments on the horizon in the life sciences with potential for hostile misuse. To illustrate the difference in scale between nuclear and biological facilities and challenges for verification, I showed my audience some satellite images of the Bushehr and Natanz nuclear facilities in Iran, alongside pictures of the Palo Alto district in Silicon Valley, California. An Iranian official in the audience afterward demanded to know where I had obtained these "sensitive" pictures. I told him I'd obtained them from Google Earth. I kid you not: "Who is this Google Earth?" he demanded to know.

It's serendipitous that Lou Reed's song, Satellite of Love (quoted above) came from an album entitled 'Transformer'. Not everyone's heard of Lou Reed yet, or is going to be a fan once they've listened to what he has to offer. Sounds like the same may be true of my pal, Google Earth - but hear from him and his ilk they will.

John Borrie


"Myanmar's Secret History Exposed in Satellite Images", Science (vol. 318), 5 October 2007.

"Satellites to Watch for Darfur Violence", Associated Press, 6 June 2007.

U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum+Google Earth website on 'Crisis in Darfur'.

Andreas Persbo & Michael Crowley, "The Role of Non-Governmental Organizations in the monitoring and verification of international arms control and disarmament agreements".

Photo of the beginning of the burning of Um Zelfa village courtesy of Brian Steidle, Alert/Sudan.