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Excerpt: The rise of counter-satellite-detection services

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This is a free excerpt from our deep dive into the mass-market satellite industry, first published on June 19, 2022. Having reviewed who the main players in the field are and their business models, we delve into the unintended consequences of the mass market access they are advancing.

The emergence of a counter-detection industry

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. This applies to the satellite industry as much as any other.

Those investing in the industry, however, are yet to really pick up on the risks associated with over-adoption.

Most market analyses, for now, ignore how mass satellite access could impact social norms, preferring to focus on the purely commercial implications and opportunities offered by such services.

What happens, however, when anyone can spot an enemy state’s secret nuclear sites under development from their gas-heated trailers in Nebraska? Chances are it will immediately trigger hundreds of visual intelligence analysts in equivalent military departments worldwide to start developing counter-detection techniques.

As an example of reactionary trends, Janes reports this week about Saab’s new Barracuda camouflage tech, which is designed to protect soldiers from detection by thermal imaging sensors, following the proliferation of “airborne thermal sensors” across the modern battleground, capable of detecting “unprotected soldiers”.

In a global panopticon system, the returns from such invisibility or from duping satellites and drones are only going to increase as the years go by. As counter-detection technologies become ever more sophisticated and accessible, trust in satellite imagery may experience its own post-truth moment as a result too.

In the commercial sector, these sorts of evasive and manipulative practices are nothing new. Gold bullion custodians have long had to handle concerns that the precious gold bars they look after have actually been pilfered and swapped for much cheaper tungsten bars cleverly disguised as gold.

There is similarly nothing stopping an unscrupulous commercial player from purposefully trying to dupe satellites with camouflage techniques either.

A miner has, for example, the capacity to disguise the rubble he extracts from the ground by shrouding it with a thin layer of a more precious material. While satellites can detect heat and lifeforms, only the most sophisticated and expensive sensors may be enough to run Star-Trek-style diagnostics of specific bundles of commodities.

Even now in most cases, on-the-ground, open-source or human intelligence methods are still necessary to comprehend what exactly is going on. That means satellite imagery may already be creating a false sense of security. Indeed, perhaps by virtue of experience, military visual intelligence units are often structurally placed parallel to respective signal intelligence units. In this way, both units’ analyses can be fed to the same destination, where the combined intelligence can be cross-referenced to reach a more accurate conclusion.

A failure to take the big picture into account, or to overly presume x is y rather than z, can lead to mistakes, possibly even tragedies. Colin Powell’s famous weapons of mass destruction speech in 2003 at the United Nations used satellite imagery in trying to prove Saddam’s regime was hiding such weapons. These images ostensibly identified active chemical munitions bunkers among other potential sites of interest. This, of course, turned out to be incorrect.

A perfect information paradox

According to the Grossman-Stiglitz Paradox, which argues that perfect informationally efficient markets are impossible, the race towards perfect visual information will always open a pathway to its own demise.

The logic here is that if prices perfectly reflect available information, there will be no profit to be had from gathering information. And if there’s no profit to be had from gathering information, nobody will expend resources doing it, and the market for satellite imagery (or, in the case of Grossman-Stiglitz, information gathering in general) will collapse – opening the door to information asymmetry and opacity again.

The law of diminishing marginal returns, meanwhile, predicts that after some level of optimal capacity is reached, additional factors of production will result in smaller output increases.

It seems inevitable that the over-proliferation of satellite operators and data analysts will lead to reactionary consequences, likely both regulatory and practical, that could affect the use of such data for commercial intelligence purposes.

The question of how close we are to the main thrust of the counter-reaction remains crucial to the investors of the space industry.

Consider Sentinel Playground, an open-source satellite data aggregator, which merges a variety of satellite feeds, allowing users to see almost daily satellite images of the same area.

How long before this technology triggers its first crime of passion, courtesy of a suspicious partner detecting the same red Corolla being parked outside of the house of their best mate every other day?

The days of engaging a private eye to hang around a suspected mistress’ house in a Ford Escort with a long lens and a packed lunch are no longer necessary.

On the flip side, consider the use of satellite technology by would-be cat burglars to better track and monitor the whereabouts of residents so that houses can be broken into without fear of being disturbed. Indeed, some archived satellite imagery middlemen, who purchase existing satellite imagery from satellite providers, already offer extremely competitive pricing – the worryingly named SpyMeSat Web’s prices go from $ 4 to $ 1,599. However, Joe Bloggs could also task a $12 per kilometre high-resolution image from SkyWatch, or even select the most up-to-date satellite imagery of any area of the world with the free Spectator.Earth service.

If such stories were to be popularised widely in the Daily Mail, precautionary actions would undoutedly be taken alongside calls for regulatory intervention.

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