War normally stimulates technological development -- but there are signs that the conflict in Afghanistan may be having the opposite effect.
In September this year, just as the US military began its campaign in the Mid-east, the National Imaging and Mapping Agency (NIMA), part of the U.S. Defense Department, contacted a company in Colorado called SpaceImaging, which sells images from a commercial satellite. NIMA offered to pay $1.9 million a month for exclusive rights to all pictures from the war region. Although the US military has plenty of its own satellites, it said it needed the pictures for its war effort.
Being a young and patriotic sort of outfit, SpaceImaging agreed. The company, which is backed by Lockheed Martin and Raytheon, launched its first satellite in 1999 after at least one multi-million dollar failure to get a space camera into orbit. It normally sells pictures to oil companies, utilities, risk management firms, and "friendly governments" around the world, and is working hard to repay massive debts. Like other nascent companies in its position, it felt it couldn't pass up large and regular income. Mark Brender, executive director of corporate communications, says the government paid a huge premium over the normal price, but admits that he isn't complaining.
What is fascinating is that the Defense Department chose to buy the photos, rather than use a much cheaper, law-based solution -- a clause of its license with the companies called "shutter control." That would have allowed the government to simply shut off access to the pictures. The Pentagon, however, didn't want to get in a scrap with free speech advocates who say the law is unconstitutional.
Chuck Herring, a spokesperson at Digital Globe, which plans to start selling satellite images early next year, says the industry needs to tread carefully, and will be working ever more closely with the government in the future. "In the present climate and the status of the industry, we want to err on the side of national security. After all, the government holds our license."
Ron Stearns, an analyst at Frost & Sullivan, a consultancy firm that follows the "remote sensing" business, says Digital Globe is likely to go the same way as SpaceImaging; that is, give up the rights to photos from the mid-east in an effort to appease the government.
The saga raises troubling questions on a number of fronts. First -- how will the war affect the relationship of the US government to new technologies? In the past, the U.S. economy has benefited greatly by commercializing technologies created by defense researchers -- GPS systems, mobile phones and the Internet -- but only after the government left the industry well alone. It could be argued that $1.9 million a month to a single company is a grand example of "corporate welfare," but it is more likely that the deal will have a negative effect. Companies and governments around the world will now be suspicious that companies like SpaceImaging are not really independent, and SpaceImaging will miss out on the chance to market itself by giving away war pictures to the media.
Secondly, of course, the public has a right to see these pictures, to find out what is really going on. It is patent nonsense that the Defense Department needs the images; much more likely that it simply wants to stop people reviewing the veracity of its statements. This is censorship pure and simple.
The way to build this industry is to force down the price of photos, so that greater numbers of companies and individuals can have access to them. If the Internet, for example, had been restricted to a few secret interests, it would have remained expensive and it never would have achieved the position it occupies today -- a relatively free communications vehicle for millions, and a great boon to the U.S. economy. Satellite imaging could also be big business, but only if governments keep well away.
Ben Schiller is a freelance journalist based in San Francisco.