Heimdall is an animation character of the MCU (Marvel Comic Universe). He has the ability to see and hear it all and he stands as the guardian sentry at the rainbow bridge Bifröst of Asgard (remember Thor). He can see through the nine realms. He is the true “Eye in the Sky”, who looks into enemies’ territories for answers.

In today’s information age, everyone has the ability to be Heimdall. Availability of internet access and IOT devices in form of Smartphones have led to a situation where cameras are everywhere and everyone is a Citizen Journalist or a source. Images and videos of troop movements, deployments, departing and arriving flights, actual combat and even enemy POW can be placed in the public domain in a bat of eyelid. Today, Open Source Intelligence platforms access satellite images on an hourly basis and put them out for everyone.

Even amateurs and hobbyists have access to inputs which professional analysts dreamed off just a decade ago. Twitter was very active during the latest India-China border skirmish. The Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) twitter handles were continuously reporting and sharing Sat Images and Images clicked by locals. Also, they were reporting military flights also, along with analysis and this removed curtains from some well-kept information. The fog of war, which every military relies on to catch its adversary by surprise, is becoming increasingly vague in the Digital Era.

OSINT refers to all the publicly available information. There is no specific date on when the term OSINT was first proposed. However, a relative term has probably been used for hundreds of years to describe the act of gathering intelligence through exploiting publicly available resources.

OSINT is drawn from publicly available material, like the internet, traditional mass media (e.g. television, radio, newspapers, magazines), specialized journals, conference proceedings & thinktank studies, photos & geospatial information (e.g. maps & commercial imagery products).

About 2,666 active satellites orbit Earth 24×7, which indicates that we are under a constant watch. Major advances in Sat Imagery since the 1957 launch of Sputnik have many people anxious about surveillance from space. If you worry about privacy, you may wonder what satellites can actually see and where the data goes but not all satellites are meant for IMINT. There are more than 400 Earth Observation Satellites/ Remote Sensing Satellites (including military and dual use) in the orbit, acquiring more than 10 terabytes of data daily specifically utilising the Visual/IR/ ESM bandwidth to observe and record.

Satellite photography provides exceptional angles/altitude for taking photos of the planet that can help scientists and others recognize patterns and trends. But it also raises concerns about National Security. Having read the same blog in the Geo Spatial World and Science & The Wire (https://www.geospatialworld.net/blogs/covid-19-pandemic-eye-opener-for-better-remote-sensing-policies-in-india/ ), I thought it is important to present the view from a National Security perspective.

Satellite photos aren’t sort of a spy movie where you can keep zooming in until you see face of a person. In fact, photos today aren’t accurate in the way our phone’s camera is. For example, each pixel of a satellite image with one-meter resolution projects one square meter of actual earth. As a criterion, the lesser an image resolution is, the better the image quality.

There are numerous queries arising from Satellite Imaging operations, and these too often characterize a threat to countries sovereignty and national control. Moreover, regarding the military or civil uses of a satellite, the essential technologies are similar, the only variance being their use. Dual purpose is therefore advantageous for states with minimal budgets and resources to develop civil and military space programs independently, leading to an increase in the number of players in this milieu.

Satellite Imagery of Pangongtso Lake was publicly available during the Ladakh skirmishes. Source: Photo by Vijit Dutta on Unsplash

However, the double use has negatives too, a satellite of this type becomes in fact an objective to be neutralized in case of conflict, also involving the obliteration of the vital results obtained in the civil field. It is useful here to remember Bin Cheng’s (professor of Air and Space Law at UCL and honorary President of the London Institute of Space Policy and Law) thought that “A state’s territory is a castle. No one is allowed to enter it without its permission… the arrival of space age was as opening up an ant-hill with all the ants inside scurrying round wondering how to cover themselves and their secrets and stores”.

This is one of the penalties of Space Surveillance/ Space IMINT, the relevance of a state’s terrestrial military power is reduced to nearly zero due to the transparency of the opposing tactics in advance thanks to the collection of data from space. Hence, the new Space Race, because sending a satellite up in space also means substantially increasing the influence and power of a nation by acquiring elements related to the opposing strategies or even espionage.

The question of the legitimacy of space espionage is also linked to a query whether satellites are placed in an international or national “type” Orbit in the Outer Space? The public opinion advocates for the management of such operations in a way that does not have to be intimidating to the states and therefore does not lead to generating tensions between them. But then question arises how would the searched know that he has been seeked. Obviously, the steps taken by nations must be in-synch with the UN Charter, which means that they cannot be based completely on the national situation, otherwise being random.

Observation for military purposes, as is well known, a certain element of the current international framework and the best way to deal with this situation is to return to the principles of the United Nations Charter Chapter XI Article 74, for example, provides that member states base their attitude of respect towards the territory “on the general principle of good neighbourliness due account being taken of the interests and well-being of the rest of the world, in social, economic, and commercial matters”.

This is also an element that contributes to defining the illegitimacy of remote sensing and that helps to make the margin between authorized and forbidden space activities (with particular interest for those of a military nature) less blurry. Although there are no specific customary rules of international law that prohibit space reconnaissance, these initiatives cannot simply fall into the legally allowed category. In this regard, in fact, the treaties on space support peaceful purposes and every decision on the matter must be accepted by maintaining the balance between nations; also noting that, International Jurisprudence bans covert remote sensing. Therefore, the new picture shown undermines one of the most important characteristics of states, that being Sovereignty. With this in mind, only a crystal clear and pronounced set of rules can be the key to safeguarding the autonomy of the countries, in the context of peaceful coexistence.

A US regulation from 1997, known as Kyl-Bingaman Amendment, restricts satellite images of Israel and the Palestinian territories used in US commercial services, such as Google Earth, to products/ items/infrastructure that are more than two meters across.

The amendment restricts the Ground Sample Distance (GSD), which means that that each pixel the dots used to make a complete image should only represents four square meters on the ground. And the objects smaller than two meters across should be lost in the final image. It is known fact that the smaller the GSD, the sharper the image and the more information it can provide.

I propose that India should assert its right to control the activities of Remote Sensing satellites as other countries do through ‘Shutter Control’ regulations or implement Indian “Kyl-Bingaman Amendment”. The limitation imposed by states upon particular areas of their national territory is called localized degrading of satellite imagery, is commonly known as ‘Shutter Control’ regulation. Shutter control is beneficial to protect the state’s national security and foreign policy. The activity itself may not be ipso facto prohibited; instead, it is tackled in the dissemination phase.

India has its own Remote Sensing Data Policy with two basic aims, first to establish a licensing mechanism and second to ensure control over remote sensing data dissemination. The Department of Space has assigned the licensing operation to two entities, the first one is the National Remote Sensing Centre (NRSC) for handling acquisition/ distribution of data within India both from Indian and foreign satellites, and the second is Antrix Corporation for procurement/ dispersal of data outside of India, while data dissemination is subject to the three-tier policy that divides how data can be disseminated according to the resolution.

Data between 5.8m and 1m is subject to screening, to ensure that sensitive areas are excluded. Government operators don’t require clearances to distribute data higher than 1m within themselves, however all other users are reviewed by High-Resolution Image Clearance Committee. The definition of ‘Sensitive Areas’ is not provided in the Remote Sensing Data Policy. However, the example of it can be seen in the agreement concluded by the Indian government with space imaging, that Google Earth (IKONOS) will degrade sensitive areas such as military bases and airfields before distributed in India. NRSC also forbids the dissemination of data containing India’s borders up to 80 KM inside the territory, including the Union Territories of Jammu and Kashmir. But what about Satellite Pictures available from satellites not registered in India or not owned by Allies, the debate is concerning.

India must initiate cooperation with the sensing states (at least the friendly ones) to obtain the primary and processed data, to find out what kind of data captured by the satellites as long as it is in accordance with the sensing state’s international obligations (for instance, to protect security needs, national sovereignty and trade secrets). Moreover, as the Remote Sensing Principles is the only international instrument governing remote sensing, it is reasonable enough for states to negotiate for a treaty or convention concerning the operation. Although some of the principles may be acknowledged as customary international law, it is undeniable that it is merely a resolution. The future treaty may contain the principles of shutter control so that in the event of an emergency or due to national security reasons, the sensed states could ask for the right of priority access, the right to interrupt the services, and the right to do a security check for the data before being distributed.

The authority of this technology creates opportunities and fears, entangled, with potential to swap fast. These help localisation, processing, and distribution of Giga Bytes of data and prepare them as products for analysts. But the essential role in analysis will continue to be the mind of the analyst, an object and a focus for AI and CI, who will generate knowledge products from whatever is available, not only the Heimdall’s vision but its mind is also to be blurred.

In the end, I would like to say that “International Surveillance Agency for Satellites” is an idea whose time has come. It has been rejected before and one of the main reasons for the refusal is the fact that a body that deliberates by a majority view cannot do so for sensitive issues concerning space. In this sense, greater support would be required to if not today but definitely tomorrow. The transition of Remote Sensing Satellites from being mere expressions of India’s state and military aspirations in space to an industry has been enabled by the integration of satellite data with AI, ML, Cloud Structuring, Blockchain and IOT technologies.

This merger, along with privatisation, has changed raw imagery data into reliable insights and geospatial information, with proven applications for better governance and decision making but also as a threat to National Security if not reigned. Indian Governments Remote Sensing Data Policy 2011 requires revision and needs to be made more relevant in the Era of LandViewer, USGS Earth Explorer, Copernicus Open Access Hub and other free GIS data free to use applications.

(This post first appeared here in The Tilak Chronicle.)

Rahul Verma

Rahul Verma holds a Master’s Degree in Aero Space Law from NALSAR, Hyderabad. He has also attended Graduate Certificate in Technology and Policy from Takshashila Institution. He has undergone UNITAR course “Diplomacy 4.0”. He also is qualified on Space law and Drone law.


The views and opinions expressed in the above article belong to the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official opinion, policy or position of Lokmaanya.


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