State(less) surveillance: how satellite tech is being used for journalism

Satellite imagery is a powerful technology that is becoming democratized and is now being used in the interests of press freedom and transparency. This article is an interview with satellite imaging firm Planet’s VP of Communications, Trevor Hammond, originally published on Byline Times April 30, 2020.

Planet is a San Francisco-headquartered firm operating a constellation of 150 satellites that monitor the Earth from pole to pole. They do this using a “monitoring” approach, meaning that the satellites are constantly operating, acquiring some 1.2 million images every single day to create a global picture.

Hammond describes the satellites as a “line scanner, in orbit like a string of pearls, while the earth spins from west to east.”

Full line of Dove satellites. Source: Planet.

The technology associated with being able to process this data was about six years in the making, and is a major shift in the market for satellite imaging: organizations traditionally shut out of being able to afford advanced tools like this are using them to look into places around the world that they otherwise would not be able to for lack of access, and where it makes sense to keep personnel safe.

Disruption

The largest commercial consumer of satellite imagery is the US government, and as such the market is designed around it. Planet is “aiming to disrupt that”, explained Hammond.

“We want to turn that cost structure upside down, we want to be able to provide, and have incentive to provide, at a much lower cost, imagery to many new markets (like) energy imports, agriculture, academia, research, journalists and NGOs, these are all markets that just had never had access to the data in the past,” he explained.

Planet has two types of data: high resolution and medium resolution, and each user can access data based on their permissions. Under Planet’s Media Program, journalists can access the medium resolution data and make requests for high resolution data.

The firm has ended up providing integral evidence for some of the most headline-making, compelling stories because of its partnership with media outlets.

In March 2019, India fired a missile into the Kashmir region, targeting a terrorist cell. The facts of the situation were highly contested, causing heated debate amid a complete lockdown of the area, including to journalists. Reuters, as users of Planet’s data, found evidence of the strike in Pakistan. The interpretation from experts who looked at the results? India’s official statement did not match the evidence.

Satellite imagery of disputed missile strike in Pakistan. Source: Planet.

“Imagery is extremely powerful, because it is very hard to debate when you look at a picture,” said Hammond. “What is important is that information be open and acceptable to all, and that we ensure, and our greatest concern is, safety to people and to the environment,” said Hammond.

One of the ways that Planet’s data is used by its customers is to keep tabs on environmental changes in regions. In the Permian basin in the southwest of the United States, companies and the civilian authority monitor the area to ensure that any activity being conducted is appropriately permitted and regulated. After 12 months of using Planet’s data, the New Mexico State Land Office identified 53 trespasses with $2.7 million in back payments. From the 53 trespasses, 22 resulted in new leases and they generated over $800,000 in new revenue.

Satellite imagery of disputed missile strike in Pakistan. Source: Planet.

Ethics

So far, Planet has not refused to release any requested images, but they have delayed decisions in the face of ethical concerns, such as: disclosing information that could put people at harm, or images revealing significant loss of life, for examples.

Planet has experts who consider ethics and the impact of the imagery, but they do not make decisions about what to release based on politics, explained Hammond: “We think about these things deeply…we appreciate the freedom we have in the US and we seek to exercise it in as fair way as possible.”

One of the biggest hurdles for people working with the database is sifting through lower resolution images, for which perseverance and frequent comparisons will bring results, explained Hammond.

His advice for researchers and journalists who want to use satellite images is to think about using satellite imaging just like any other tool of the trade: “One of the most powerful tools that a story teller and an individual seeking truth can use is to be able to peer into any part of the world with a few clicks of a mouse or your finger on a daily basis,” he said.

Feature image source: Planet

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