Intelligence agencies insist on using more commercial satellites

WASHINGTON – A group of satellites operated by an American company called Hawkeye 360 ​​looked into the Middle East earlier this year and found radar and radio waves linked to China’s fishing fleet off the coast of Oman.

When the company compared the data with information from NASA satellites tracking light sources on Earth’s surface, it found that the ships used powerful lights – an indicator of squid hunting – when tracking their tracks. Oman’s fishing waters are quietly navigated with the transponder turned off.

Surveillance is a technical test – in this case the company doesn’t tell Oman or China. However, company officials said the work showed information gathered from their colleagues, who also found military activity on the Sino-Indian border and tracked poachers in Africa for wildlife groups. And smugglers’ satellite phones followed. Traveling to work for refugees.

When Congress called on the Biden government to deploy commercial satellites on a larger scale, intelligence officials began placing new contracts to show they could upgrade the capabilities of highly classified spy satellites with increasingly sophisticated private sector services. I can.

On Monday, the National Geospatial Intelligence Service announced that it had placed a $10 million contract with Hawkeye 360 ​​to track and map worldwide radio frequency emissions that the company claims related to weapons smuggling, foreign military activity, and identification could lead to on drug trafficking.

The contract follows a study contract awarded to the company by the National Intelligence Service in 2019.

David Gauthier, trade group director for the National Geospatial Intelligence Service, said collecting radio frequency data would help the satellite with “peak and Q” images that essentially tell staff where to look. Trade data is also released, which makes it easier for the secret services to exchange data with allies and partners.

The expansion of commercial satellites with a better view of the earth is of concern to some civil liberties experts. The increasing number of commercial satellites violates secrecy, said Stephen Affwood of the Secrets Project for the Government of the Federation of American Scientists.

But government contracts with commercial satellite companies have not drawn much criticism, Aftergood said, because government satellites are much more powerful than commercial satellites, at least for now.

The precise capabilities of government satellites are discreetly protected. During his previous term in office, President Donald J. Trump posted a photo of the Iranian launch site on Twitter, which was captured by a secret US satellite and included in his intelligence report. Images are much more detailed than commercial satellite images on the same site.

In some parts of the intelligence community, those lagging behind in trade opportunities have dampened their enthusiasm for more deals with the private sector. However, Congress urged intelligence services to act quickly.

This year’s Senate version of the Intelligence Authorization Act contains provisions to increase the cost of commercial satellite programming. While intelligence leadership is within it, there is still reluctance to adopt commercial technology in some parts of the authority, according to congressional officials.

Current and former members of Congress recognize that the best and most advanced intelligence technology is still being developed and maintained by the government. But start-ups offer the opportunity to reach large parts of the world cheaply and thereby lighten the most important government satellites.

The new intelligence law, when passed by Congress this year, will create an innovation fund that will make it easier for the National Intelligence Service to quickly purchase more trading opportunities and outsource the National Geospatial Intelligence Service. This will inspire you to experiment further. Analyze different images.

McTornbury, a former chairman of the House Armed Services Committee who now sits on Hawkeye’s advisory board, said part of the problem was the government’s reluctance to use smaller but much cheaper products for intelligence gathering and analysis. .

“Business image is a great way to stay on top so better governance systems can be focused elsewhere, but we’re not blind yet,” Thornberry said. “But it’s still a cultural inconvenience to rely on something you can’t control or control as much as your country’s system.”

Mr Thornberry said government officials need to realize that the $10 million commercial satellite is not a competitor to the $1 billion made by the US government. Not only does it provide cheaper satellite filing, but it can also help government satellites operate more efficiently.

“If someone decides to launch our satellite out of the sky for billions of dollars or blind it in some way, we need to make sure we have a backup so we don’t go blind at all,” Thornberry said.

The flexibility of the system, which combines large and small government-built satellites and commercial systems, is an important part of the strategy of the National Intelligence Service, the intelligence agency responsible for many of the government’s most secretive spy satellites.

“Our adversaries are trying to challenge our space advantage and the opportunities we have and have long offered,” said Pete Mund, director of the National Intelligence Service’s Commercial Services Program. “A diverse architecture, consisting of national and commercial satellites operating in multiple orbits, is critical to our national security.”

The National Intelligence Service established a program office in 2018 to introduce more commercial sources of information. Since then, the agency has signed three multi-year contracts providing 100 million square kilometers of promotional images every week.

While the National Intelligence Service is primarily focused on acquiring commercial imagery, it is also exploring other commercial space technologies such as the Hawkeye radio frequency satellite and others that collect radar data and spectral images beyond what the human eye can see. .

“I wouldn’t say that they are able to bring together unique regions of the world, but actually they are different and complementary points of view,” Muend said. “We are very happy to see how you can gain knowledge.”

Hawkeye has previously tracked China’s commercial fishing fleet, capturing ships with beaconing systems that have been clogged and breached protected waters around the Galapagos. But the task of tracking the fleet that improperly entered Oman’s waters in January marked the first time the company had combined its data with NASA satellites.

While commercial vessels going to sea must identify themselves with transponder beacons, they can be turned off. But Hawkeye can identify Chinese fishing vessels by radio bands when they hunt fish.

“This is further evidence of bad behavior by the Chinese sovereign fishing fleet, which is effectively a plague of locusts roaming the earth, sucking up natural resources,” said Hawkeye 360 ​​founder John Serafini.

Neither the Chinese embassy in Washington nor the embassy in Oman responded to requests for comment.

The company calls its technology an orbital tip jar that can detect anomalies, allowing analysts to direct other satellites to an area of ​​view.

“The importance of Hawkeye,” said Mr. Serafini, “is that over time it gives you intelligence about the patterns of life.