The debate is in the very early stages but the intelligence community and the Commerce and Defense departments are considering whether to increase the resolution of electro-optical satellite imagery that can be sold commercially, sparking a complex discussion about whether this may provide enemies with substantially improved intelligence or actually boost US control over the best commercial imagery.
Several sources in government and industry confirmed the basic facts of the policy debate. All asked for anonymity. The Commerce Department has already completed one study of the impact of dropping the current restriction on commercial sale of anything better than .5 meter imagery.
Currently, the US controls the best resolution commercial imagery and restricts what can be sold commercially to .5 meter resolution. GeoEye, one of the two commercial imagery companies in the US, is capable of providing imagery as accurate as .41 according to several sources, but only to the US government. [The picture shown is of the Washington Mall on Jan. 20 at .5 meter resolution. For a higher fidelitydepiction of the image go to this link. ] In order to improve the company's cash flow and improve the value of the asset that is their imagery database, the company would like to see the U.S. move to the .4 standard. (Their competitor, DigitalGlobe, is notoriously close-mouthed about both its opinions and its operations.) It may also benefit the government in several ways, a congressional aide said.
"If you are going to have increased resolution by the commercial guys then they can provide the government with less costly images because, if the images they are taking can't be sold commercially, then they are worth more because the market for them is smaller," the aide said.
Another issue in favor of allowing improved resolution is that helping to guarantee the US commercial monopoly on the sale of high resolution imagery, which this would do, means the US intelligence community would maintain what is called shutter control over the sale of such images during times of high international tension. One country, Japan, is already planning to build and launch by 2014 a satellite capable of producing .5 meter resolution photos.
"IF the US doesn't control the satellites that provide this imagery then we can't control what is sold. What good is our shutter control if that happens," mused the aide.
But the intelligence community is reportedly wary about this proposed change. Apparently, the difference of one tenth of a meter is a markedly significant improvement in resolution that could provide helpful clues to enemies.
The policy issues here are extremely complex and can be argued several different ways by well meaning people. "There are lots of policy issues on both sides of this one," the congressional aide said. But, "I think there is something to be said for this argument that if we have the monopoly on this level of resolution then we are better for it."
Do not look for a resolution of this debate any time soon.