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Spy Mapping Agency Isn't Going Dark Anytime Soon

NGA Director Sue Gordon

NGA Director Sue Gordon // National Geospatial Intelligence Agency

The second in command at the Pentagon's spy mapping agency says her problem with bad guys exploiting advances in digital communications is almost the opposite of a handicap the FBI says it has.

The challenge for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency is not one of “going dark” but of too much light.

With 48 commercial remote sensing satellites in orbit and 800 scheduled to be launched by 2024, terrorists can now observe, better than ever before, where they are exposed.

"With the explosion in the availability of commercial imagery, it is certainly making the world more aware of what can be seen," NGA Deputy Director Sue Gordon told Nextgov.

FBI Director Jim Comey, on the other hand, says law enforcement authorities are going dark, or losing the ability to access intelligence because the public increasingly is using encryption to scramble communications, plans, and, yes, even maps. The bureau on Feb. 16 obtained a court order compelling Apple developers to circumvent the encryption features on a San Bernardino shooter's iPhone.

"I think it’s a materially different experience that we’re having than I think the FBI and Apple are having, which tends to be more about can you go in and get something," Gordon said in a Feb. 25 interview at the Esri FedGIS conference in Washington. "It is always interesting when you used to have a technical advantage and then that begins to be annoyingly eroded.”

Gordon, previously CIA Information Operations Center director and senior cyber adviser, says her agency still has the upper hand in location intelligence.

Imagery from commercial providers like DigitalGlobe, Planet Labs and Google subsidiary Skybox Imaging “is also allowing us to see even more,” she said.

But there is the possibility that too many eyes in the sky will complicate the hide-and-go-seek game of espionage, Gordon acknowledges.

A year ago, the government authorized the sale of military-grade satellite imagery (with 30-centimeter resolution) to anyone.

"While it’s nothing new that a Russian military intelligence unit could complete a comprehensive study of a Syrian airstrip, it is novel that a supporter of the self-declared Islamic State could use open-source information to perform this type of analysis full time," Council on Foreign Relations researchers Harry Oppenheimer and Aaron Picozzi warned in a Feb. 19 column on Nextgov's sister publication Defense One. "They could now purchase satellite images to track similar scenarios and to inform grand strategy and prioritize targets." 

The company that owns the only satellite capable of delivering the 30-centimeter level of detail, DigitalGlobe, expects to launch one more in September to meet the demand of customers in other countries.

In January, DigitalGlobe announced a joint-venture with two Saudi Arabian organizations to develop a network of six small satellites that will be capable of revisiting key areas of the globe 40 times a day, according to Reuters. Each DigitalGlobe satellite currently orbits the Earth about 15 times per day.

Gordon says she does not fear being blinded by the light.

"I can imagine over time how the advantage that anyone has in terms of being able to cleverly collect intelligence against somebody who didn’t know" they were being watched, "could diminish, but I think we’re still able to ply our craft," she said.

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