Spy Agency Contracts Awarded to Commercial Satellite Firms

    Image copyright: Maxar Technologies/Reuters [via The Washington Post]

    The Facts

    • The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), the US intelligence agency that operates the nation's spy satellites, will award billions of dollars in contracts over the next decade to three commercial satellite companies: Maxar, BlackSky, and Planet.

    • The NRO acknowledged the contracts were a "historic expansion" of its acquisition strategy and stated that the increasing availability of commercial companies' imagery will improve the agency's resilience and enable an integrated approach to national security.

    The Spin

    Pro-establishment narrative

    This is a win-win situation. The government still designs and operates the most exquisite and cutting-edge intelligence satellites, but commercial companies can offer ways to cheaply cover much of the world. Because the commercial images are unclassified, intelligence agencies can share data and collaborate more easily with allies and partners.

    Establishment-critical narrative

    Commercial satellite imagery technology must be regulated. The government needs to impose stricter limits on commercial satellite technology. Soon, anyone from ad companies to terrorist organizations could be monitoring innocent citizens using technology previously reserved for government intelligence agencies. It is a slippery slope to this Orwellian distopia.

    Nerd narrative

    There is a 50% chance that the highest pixel resolution of commercially available optical satellite imagery, purchasable in a NATO country in the year 2050, will be better than 15.7cm, according to the Metaculus prediction community.

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