We don’t know how the Ukraine war will end. But due to satellite imagery, we can see how it’s unfolding on the ground. Satellites that deliver the novelty of real-time transparency — and the public tendency to point fingers based on that imagery — are getting a lot of attention.
This attention can shore up support for humanitarian efforts, and the satellite imagery from Ukraine shows how civilian lives are affected in wartime. That is, when bombs turn hospitals to rubble, when critical infrastructure is destroyed, when workers bury the dead in mass graves. The constant drip of these images builds a horrifying map of the devastation imposed on the lives of Ukrainians. All will need relief and protection in the coming months.
The imagery fortifies the work of organizations on the ground and reinforces the importance of satellite-based internet platforms to ensure communication and connectivity for civilians. But there is also a concerning reality behind the triumphalist narrative of satellite imagery. Imaging satellites are, in essence, nondiscriminatory. They see a yellow school bus the same way they see a military tank.
Ukraine is the harbinger of an emerging technology frontier — small satellites, big data (SSBD) — that I’ve been tracking with colleagues over the past decade. Slightly more than half of the 5,465 satellites operating today belong to U.S. commercial interests. In 2021, an estimated 1,700 small satellites were launched. Small commercial satellites with global surveillance capabilities are delivering terabytes of unclassified imagery and broadcasts every day, far more data than human analysts can manage. Computational analytics make sense of that volume of data for decision-makers.
Over time, we will be able to detect, attribute and classify much of what’s happening on the planet’s surface. Aside from natural phenomena, such as melting glaciers, decision-makers will have data-centered visuals of all human activities — public or private, civilian, commercial or military. Anything that can be seen from space will be counted and recorded, sold and disseminated.
If technology stays the course, we will continue to do this faster and more efficiently. States — indeed, anyone who can pay the commercial satellite operators — stand to have unprecedented capabilities to address security challenges virtually anywhere. Ukraine is the test case.
SSBD also mean that people should be made aware that they will be operating in a more transparent environment than ever before. All their behavior — good or bad, public or private — will be visible. Anonymity is under unprecedented assault and could soon be gone forever.
It’s not just troops or nuclear subs. It’s not all about wartime. Since most of the world’s population lives within certain latitudes, everyday activity can be imaged. We will know if your lights are on at night or whether it’s your car behind the mall. We will know how many people enter a church and if masses are looming in front of a government building.
These realities are of interest not just to investors and traders looking for leading economic indicators, but also to the military, law enforcement sectors and national security establishments. SSBD is not a flash in the pan. It is the new reality.
We know SSBD will affect statecraft in world politics, balances between states and their societies, and connections between people. What we don’t know is whether all this will be positive or negative. We are still in the early stages of grappling with SSBD and its consequences for shaping political and social realities. The research should make us vigilant about the fault lines ahead.
Satellites can see. But seeing is not believing, messaging or persuading.
It’s not clear who will decide what we see and why. Digital data are fragile, prone to manipulation. They filter through our interpretive views, and failure to understand these human filters may doom the fate of persistent imagery.
Swaying sentiments based on space imagery alone is also unlikely to have lasting effects. If the messaging accompanying an image doesn’t resonate, it doesn’t matter how consistently or quickly it can be delivered.
And even though satellites showed military convoys and troops amassing on the border as war operations began in Ukraine, being constantly watched did nothing to stop Russian aggression. Satellite imagery becomes more powerful when it is merged with on-the-ground photography and reporting. It’s one thing to see mounds of mass graves, quite another to see them credibly connected to a dead body.
The Ukraine war, ongoing and horrific, serves as a warning about upcoming battles in defense of facts. Preparing for these fights is not something that can be done on the fly. Educating people about the situational context of an image — what it means and how it might affect them — is a much more painstaking task that helps citizens make sense of their world.
Now is the time to consider how we will educate people about persistent satellite imagery. These efforts will matter when building fact-based narratives in world politics. The fate of working democracies depends on it.