Widespread Blurring of Satellite Images Reveals Secret Facilities

Want to know how to make a satellite imagery analyst instantly curious about something?

Blur it out.

Google Earth occasionally does this at the request of governments that want to keep prying eyes away from some of their more sensitive military or political sites. France, for example, has asked Google to obscure all imagery of its prisons after a French gangster successfully conducted a Hollywood-inspired jailbreak involving drones, smoke bombs, and a stolen helicopter(!)—and Google has agreed to comply by the end of 2018. In similar fashion, an old Dutch law requires Dutch companies to blur their satellite images of military and royal facilities—even to the point where a satellite imagery provider once doctored an image of Volkel Air Base after it was purchased by FAS’ very own Hans Kristensen.

Yandex Maps—Russia’s foremost mapping service—has also agreed to selectively blur out specific sites beyond recognition; however, it has done so for just two countries: Israel and Turkey. The areas of these blurred sites range from large complexes—such as airfields or munitions storage bunkers—to small, nondescript buildings within city blocks.

 

 

Although blurring out specific sites is certainly unusual, it is not uncommon for satellite imagery companies to downgrade the resolution of certain sets of imagery before releasing them to viewing platforms like Yandex or Google Earth; in fact, if you trawl around the globe using these platforms, you’ll notice that different locations will be rendered in a variety of resolutions. Downtown Toronto, for example, is always visible at an extremely high resolution; looking closely, you can spot my bike parked outside my old apartment. By contrast, imagery of downtown Jerusalem is always significantly blurrier; you can just barely make out cars parked on the side of the road.

 

 

As I explained in my previous piece about geolocating Israeli Patriot batteries, a 1997 US law known as the Kyl-Bingaman Amendment (KBA) prohibits US companies from publishing satellite imagery of Israel at a Ground Sampling Distance lower than what is commercially available. This generally means that US-based satellite companies like DigitalGlobe and viewing platforms like Google Earth won’t publish any images of Israel that are better than 2m resolution.

Foreign mapping services like Russia’s Yandex are legally not subject to the KBA, but they tend to stick to the 2m resolution rule regardless, likely for two reasons. Firstly, after 20 years the KBA standard has become somewhat institutionalized within the satellite imagery industry. And secondly, Russian companies (and the Russian state) are surely wary of doing anything to sour Russia’s critical relationship with Israel.

However, Yandex has taken a step well beyond simply downgrading its Israeli imagery, as is typical for most mapping services. Yandex itself—or perhaps its imagery provider ScanEx—has blurred out specific military installations in their entirety. Interestingly, it has done the same to Turkey, a country that benefits from no special standards and is therefore almost always shown in very high resolution.

 

 

This blurring is almost certainly the result of requests from both Israel and Turkey; it seems highly unlikely that a Russian company would undertake such a time-consuming task of its own volition. Fortunately (from an OSINT perspective), this has had the unintended effect of revealing the location and exact perimeter of every significant military facility within both countries, if one is obsessive curious enough to sift through the entire map looking for blurry patches. Matching the blurred sites to un-blurred (albeit downgraded) imagery available through Google Earth is a method of “tipping and cueing,” in which one dataset is used to inform a more detailed analysis of a second dataset.

My complete list of blurred sites in both Israel and Turkey totals over 300 distinct buildings, airfields, ports, bunkers, storage sites, bases, barracks, nuclear facilities, and random buildings—prompting several intriguing points of consideration:

  • Included in the list of Yandex’s blurred sites are at least two NATO facilities: Allied Land Command (LANDCOM) in Izmir, and Incirlik Air Base, which hosts the largest contingent of US B61 nuclear gravity bombs at any single NATO base. 


 

  • Strangely, no Russian facilities have been blurred—including its nuclear facilities, submarine bases, air bases, launch sites, or numerous foreign military bases in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, or the Middle East.
  • Although none of Russia’s permanent military installations in Syria have been blurred, almost the entirety of Syria is depicted in extremely low resolution, making it nearly impossible to utilize Yandex for analyses of Syrian imagery. By contrast, both Crimea and the entire Donbass region are visible at very high resolutions, so this blurring standard applies only selectively to Russia’s foreign adventures.
  • All four Israeli Patriot batteries that I identified using radar interference in my previous post have been blurred out, confirming that these sites do indeed have a military function.

 

 

Putting aside the geopolitical intrigue of Russia’s relations with both Israel and Turkey, Yandex’s actions are a prime example of what is known as the Streisand Effect. In 2003, Barbra Streisand attempted to sue a photographer who posted photos of her Malibu mansion online, claiming $10 million in damages and demanding that the innocuous photo be taken down. Her actions completely backfired: not only did Streisand lose the case and have to cover the defendant’s legal fees, but the attention raised by her lawsuit directed significant traffic to the photo in question. Before the lawsuit, the photo had only been viewed six times (including twice by Streisand’s lawyers); a month later, the photo had accumulated over 420,000 views—a prime example of how attempting to obscure something is actually likely to result in unwanted attention.

So too with Yandex. By complying with requests to selectively obscure military facilities, the mapping service has actually revealed their precise locations, perimeters, and potential function to anyone curious enough to find them all.

Invention Secrecy Hits Recent High

Last year the number of patent applications that were subject to a “secrecy order” under the Invention Secrecy Act of 1951 was the highest that it has been in more than two decades, according to data obtained from the US Patent and Trademark Office.

Whenever disclosure of a new invention is deemed to be “detrimental to national security,” a secrecy order may be imposed on the patent application, preventing its public disclosure and blocking issuance of the patent. Most affected inventions seem to involve technologies that have military uses. But the current criteria that are used to make the determination have not been released, so the actual scope of invention secrecy is not publicly known.

At the end of FY 2018 (September 30, 2018), there were 5,792 secrecy orders in effect, up slightly from 5,784 the year before.

There were 85 new orders imposed, and 77 existing orders that were rescinded. The remaining orders, which were originally imposed in previous years, were renewed. Among the new orders, there were 43 that were imposed on private inventors (i.e., not government employees or contractors). These so-called “John Doe” secrecy orders are a constitutionally suspect category, since they involve prior restraint on the speech of a private citizen or business.

The new total of 5,792 secrecy orders in effect is the highest since 1993, when the total was 5,909.

When a secrecy order is rescinded — years or sometimes decades after it was imposed — the invention may finally be patented.

When asked whether any of the inventions that were released from a secrecy order in 2018 had subsequently been patented, the US Patent and Trademark Office said it had no record of such patents.

See, relatedly, “The U.S. Government’s Secret Inventions” by Arvind Dilawar, Slate, May 9, 2018.

Growing Pentagon Secrecy Draws Questions

In just the last few weeks and months, U.S. military officials imposed new restrictions on media interviews and base visits, at least temporarily; they blocked (but later permitted) publication of current data on the extent of insurgent control of Afghanistan; and they classified previously unclassified information concerning future flight tests of ballistic missile defense systems.

“We’ve seen multiple instances in the past year where the [military] services have sought to be more guarded in their transparency and accessibility to the media,” said Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-WI) at an April 12 hearing of the House Armed Services Committee. “Part of that’s understandable, but I think transparency is needed now more than ever.”

Defense Secretary James Mattis said in response that he didn’t exactly disagree.

“I want more engagement with the media, [but] I want you to give your name, I don’t want to read that somebody spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak,” Mattis said.

“I have yet to tell anyone they’re not authorized to speak. So if they’re not willing to say they know about the issue and give their name that would concern me. If they’re giving background, they should just be a defense official giving background information authorized to give it.”

“What I don’t want is pre-decisional information, or classified information or any information about upcoming military movements or operations, which is the normal lose lips sink ships kind of restriction.”

“Pre-decisional, we do not close the president’s decision making maneuver space by saying things before the president has made a decision. But otherwise, I want more engagement with the military, and I don’t want to see an increase in opaqueness about what we’re doing.”

“We’re already remote enough from the American people by our size and by our continued focus overseas. We need to be more engaged here at home,” Secretary Mattis said.

Part of that is understandable, as Rep. Gallagher said. But it does not correspond to, or justify, the way that DoD conducts itself in practice, which has certainly produced “an increase in opaqueness.”

Last week, for example, DoD published its regular quarterly report for December 2017 on the number of US troops deployed abroad — but now with the number of troops in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan deleted. See Pentagon strips Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria troop numbers from web by Tara Copp, Military Times, April 9. (Previously disclosed numbers in prior quarterly reports were also deleted but then reposted last week.)

Citing the new secrecy, Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) said “I’m very concerned about that. I think that there’s no combat advantage to obfuscating the number of U.S. service members that were in these countries three months ago. And, furthermore, the American public has a right to know. Do you intend to restore that information to the website?,” she asked Secretary Mattis at last week’s hearing.

“I’ll certainly look at it,” he replied. “I share your conviction that the American people should know everything that doesn’t give the enemy an advantage.”

The Expanding Secrecy of the Afghanistan War

Last year, dozens of categories of previously unclassified information about Afghan military forces were designated as classified, making it more difficult to publicly track the progress of the war in Afghanistan.

The categories of now-classified information were tabulated in a memo dated October 31, 2017 that was prepared by the staff of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), John Sopko.

In the judgment of the memo authors, “None of the material now classified or otherwise restricted discloses information that could threaten the U.S. or Afghan missions (such as detailed strategy, plans, timelines, or tactics).”

But “All of the [newly withheld] data include key metrics and assessments that are essential to understanding mission success for the reconstruction of Afghanistan’s security institutions and armed forces.”

So what used to be available that is now being withheld?

“It is basically casualty, force strength, equipment, operational readiness, attrition figures, as well as performance assessments,” said Mr. Sopko, the SIGAR.

“Using the new [classification criteria], I would not be able to tell you in a public setting or the American people how their money is being spent,” Mr. Sopko told Congress at a hearing last November.

The SIGAR staff memo tabulating the new classification categories was included as an attachment for the hearing record, which was published last month. See Overview of 16 Years of Involvement in Afghanistan, hearing before the House Government Oversight and Reform Committee, November 1, 2017.

In many cases, the information was classified by NATO or the Pentagon at the request of the Government of Afghanistan.

“Do you think that it is an appropriate justification for DOD to classify previously unclassified information based on a request from the Afghan Government?,” asked Rep. Val Demings (D-FL). “Why or why not?”

“I do not because I believe in transparency,” replied Mr. Sopko, “and I think the loss of transparency is bad not only for us, but it is also bad for the Afghan people.”

“All of this [now classified] material is historical in nature (usually between one and three months old) because of delays incurred by reporting time frames, and thus only provides ‘snapshot’ data points for particular periods of time in the past,” according to the SIGAR staff memo.

“All of the data points [that were] classified or restricted are ‘top-line’ (not unit-level) data. SIGAR currently does not publicly report potentially sensitive, unit-specific data.”

Yesterday at a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC) asked Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis about the growing restrictions on information about the war in Afghanistan.

“We are now increasing the number of our troops in Afghanistan, and after 16 years, the American people have a right to know of their successes. Some of that, I’m sure it is classified information, which I can understand. But I also know that we’re not getting the kind of information that we need to get to know what successes we’re having. And after 16 years, I do not think we’re having any successes,” Rep. Jones said.

Secretary Mattis said that the latest restriction of unclassified information about the extent of Taliban or government control over Afghanistan that was withheld from the January 2018 SIGAR quarterly report had been “a mistake.” He added, “That information is now available.” But Secretary Mattis did not address the larger pattern of classifying previously unclassified information about Afghan forces that was discussed at the November 2017 hearing.

Invention Secrecy Activity Rises Slightly

A total of 5,784 patent applications remained subject to invention secrecy orders at the end of Fiscal Year 17, according to new data provided by the US Patent and Trademark Office.

The secrecy orders, issued under the Invention Secrecy Act of 1951, restrict disclosure of patent applications considered to be “detrimental to national security” if published.

That total number was up slightly from the 5,680 secrecy orders that were in effect a year earlier.

Most existing patent secrecy orders are renewed year after year.

In FY17, there were 132 new secrecy orders that were imposed, and 28 existing orders that were rescinded, according to the US PTO data. There were 39 new “John Doe” orders imposed on private inventors who sought to patent inventions in which the government has no property interest.

Most invention secrecy applies to inventions involving technology relevant to military applications, but the full scope of the invention secrecy program is not described in public documents.

Patents Granted to Two Formerly Secret Inventions

Two patent applications that had been subject to “secrecy orders” under the Invention Secrecy Act for years or decades were finally granted patents and publicly disclosed in 2016.

“Only two patents have been granted so far on cases in which the secrecy order was rescinded in FY16,” the US Patent and Trademark Office said this week in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.  They were among the 20 inventions whose secrecy orders were rescinded over the past year.

One of the patents concerns “a controllable barrier layer against electromagnetic radiation, to be used, inter alia, as a radome for a radar antenna for instance.” The inventor, Anders Grop of Sweden, filed the patent application in 2007 and it was granted on April 5, 2016 (patent number 9,306,290).

The other formerly secret invention that finally received a patent this year described “multi-charge munitions, incorporating hole-boring charge assemblies.” Detonation of the munitions is “suitable for defeating a concrete target.” That invention was originally filed in 1990 by Kevin Mark Powell and Edward Evans of the United Kingdom and was granted on October 25, 2016 (patent number 9,476,682).

The inventors could not immediately be contacted for comment. But judging from appearances, the decision to control the disclosure of these two inventions for a period of time and then to grant them a patent was consistent with the terms of the Invention Secrecy Act, and it had no obvious adverse impacts.

Invention Secrecy Increased in 2016

There were 5,680 invention secrecy orders in effect at the end of Fiscal Year 2016. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office reported that 121 new secrecy orders were issued in 2016, but also that 20 existing orders were rescinded, for a net increase of 101 over the year before. The latest figures were released under the Freedom of Information Act.

The government may impose a “secrecy order” on a patent application under the Invention Secrecy Act of 1951 if it believes that disclosure of the underlying invention would be “detrimental to national security.” Under those circumstances, a patent is withheld and the inventor is prohibited from revealing the invention unless and until the secrecy order is withdrawn.

The majority of secrecy orders apply to inventions that were developed with government sponsorship, in national or military laboratories or by government-funded contractors. So the ensuing secrecy amounts to the government silencing itself.

In a subset of cases, however, secrecy orders are imposed on private inventors who developed their idea without government support. There were 49 such orders in FY 2016. These orders, known as “John Doe” secrecy orders, seem like a form of prior restraint on individual speech that would be arguably inconsistent with the First Amendment.

But there have been few constitutional challenges to the Invention Secrecy Act to date, and none that has dislodged or modified the Act.

In 2014, inventors Budimir Damnjanovic and Desanka Damnjanovic filed a lawsuit seeking compensation for a secrecy order that the U.S. Air Force imposed on them. They also argued that the Invention Secrecy Act itself was unconstitutional.

“Because the Patent Secrecy Act prohibits Plaintiffs from speaking of their Invention to third parties, including potential customers, it violates the First Amendment of the Constitution,” their May 14, 2014 complaint stated.

Moreover, “the Patent Secrecy Act has resulted in Plaintiffs being deprived of property without due process and just compensation in violation of the Fifth Amendment.”

The court dismissed the constitutional claim because by that time the secrecy orders had been lifted and therefore, the court determined, the inventors did not have standing to make their constitutional case.

“Plaintiffs’ First Amendment argument fails because the harms they claim they suffered are past injuries. Further, the purported prohibition on speech Plaintiffs allegedly endured is not an ongoing issue, given that the secrecy orders have been lifted,” according to a September 22, 2015 court order. (Damnjanovic v. US Air Force, E.D. of Michigan, S. Div., 14-11920).

Ultimately, however, the parties reached a settlement regarding the compensation issues, and in December 2015 the government agreed to pay the inventors a lump sum of $63,000 to dismiss the case.

For related background, see “Congratulations, Your Genius Patent is Now a Military Secret” by Joshua Brustein, Bloomberg, June 8, 2016.

The Department of Defense published a proposed rule in the Federal Register today on “Withholding of Unclassified Technical Data and Technology From Public Disclosure.”

The rule “is meant to control the transfer of technical data and technology contributing to the military potential of any country or countries, groups, or individuals that could prove detrimental to U.S, national security or critical interests.”

“For the purposes of this regulation, public disclosure of technical data and technology is the same as providing uncontrolled foreign access. This rule instructs DoD employees, contractors, and grantees to ensure unclassified technical data and technology that discloses technology or information with a military or space application may not be exported without authorization and should be controlled and disseminated consistent with U.S. export control laws and regulations.”

Government Secrecy and Censorship

From its beginning, the Federation of American Scientists has been immersed in policies and issues regarding government secrecy and censorship. By the time World War II broke out, the fission process had been observed, followed by detection of the neutron, and recognition of induced uranium fission. In the early 1940s, some scientists in the United States, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and Germany realized the potential for nuclear weapons.

The three atomic bombs detonated in the summer of 1945 were created and assembled at secret U.S. government sites by a mixed pedigree of scientists, engineers, and military officers. The decision to drop two of them on Japanese cities was determined by military and political events then occurring, particularly in the final year of World War II.

Our Soviet wartime ally, excluded from the American, British, and Canadian nuclear coalition, used its own espionage network to remain informed. Well-placed sympathizers and spies conveyed many essential details of nuclear-explosive development. Through this network, Stalin learned of the Manhattan Project and the Trinity test. As the German invaders began to retreat from Soviet borders, he established his own secret nuclear development project.

Read on: View the full version of the article here.

 

Frequent contributor and longtime FAS member Dr. Alexander DeVolpi has just published a new book, Cold War Brinkmanship. Dr. DeVolpi’s firsthand account “chronicles the half-century nuclear crisis,” with several mentions of and citations to the work of FAS. It is available now in paperback on Amazon.

Nuclear Transparency and the Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan

ssmp2016By Hans M. Kristensen

I was reading through the latest Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan from the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and wondering what I should pick to critique the Obama administration’s nuclear policy.

After all, there are plenty of issues that deserve to be addressed, including:

– Why NNSA continues to overspend and over-commit and create a spending bow wave in 2021-2026 in excess of the President’s budget in exactly the same time period that excessive Air Force and Navy modernization programs are expected to put the greatest pressure on defense spending?

– Why a smaller and smaller nuclear weapons stockpile with fewer warhead types appears to be getting more and more expensive to maintain?

– Why each warhead life-extension program is getting ever more ambitious and expensive with no apparent end in sight?

– And why a policy of reductions, no new nuclear weapons, no pursuit of new military missions or new capabilities for nuclear weapons, restraint, a pledge to “put an end to Cold War thinking,” and the goal of disarmament, instead became a blueprint for nuclear overreach with record funding, across-the-board modernizations, unprecedented warhead modifications, increasing weapons accuracy and effectiveness, reaffirmation of a Triad and non-strategic nuclear weapons, continuation of counterforce strategy, reaffirmation of the importance and salience of nuclear weapons, and an open-ended commitment to retain nuclear weapons further into the future than they have existed so far?

What About The Other Nuclear-Armed States?

Despite the contradictions and flaws of the administration’s nuclear policy, however, imagine if the other nuclear-armed states also published summaries of their nuclear weapons plans. Some do disclose a little, but they could do much more. For others, however, the thought of disclosing any information about the size and composition of their nuclear arsenal seems so alien that it is almost inconceivable.

Yet that is actually one of the reasons why it is necessary to continue to work for greater (or sufficient) transparency in nuclear forces. Some nuclear-armed states believe their security depends on complete or near-compete nuclear secrecy. And, of course, some nuclear information must be protected from disclosure. But the problem with excessive secrecy is that it tends to fuel uncertainty, rumors, suspicion, exaggerations, mistrust, and worst-case assumptions in other nuclear-armed states – reactions that cause them to shape their own nuclear forces and strategies in ways that undermine security for all.

Nuclear-armed states must find a balance between legitimate secrecy and transparency. This can take a long time and it may not necessarily be the same from country to country. The United States also used to keep much more nuclear information secret and there are many institutions that will always resist public access. But maximum responsible disclosure, it turns out, is not only necessary for a healthy public debate about nuclear policy, it is also necessary to communicate to allies and adversaries what that policy is about – and, equally important, to dispel rumors and misunderstandings about what the policy is not.

Nuclear transparency is not just about pleasing the arms controllers – it is important for national security.

So here are some thoughts about what other nuclear-armed states should (or could) disclose about their nuclear arsenals – not to disclose everything but to improve communication about the role of nuclear weapons and avoid misunderstandings and counterproductive surprises: Continue reading

CIA Withdraws Email Destruction Proposal

The Central Intelligence Agency has formally rescinded its widely-criticized plan to destroy the email records of all but 22 senior agency officials, the National Archives said last week.

The CIA proposal generated controversy when it became public in 2014 because of its surprisingly narrow scope, which would have precluded preservation of vast swaths of CIA email records. Such records have proved invaluable not only for historical purposes, but also for contemporary accountability and congressional oversight.

“The agency has withdrawn this schedule effective March 21, 2016, due to the agency’s reorganization,” wrote Margaret Hawkins, director of records appraisal and agency assistance at the National Archives and Records Administration, in an email message to the Federation of American Scientists.

“In our last communication on this schedule, it was conveyed that a public meeting would be held to address all comments received. With the schedule’s withdrawal, this meeting will not be held.”

In any case, CIA is still obliged to present a plan to the National Archives to explain how it will preserve or dispose of its email records. CIA can either adopt the standard template known as the Capstone General Records Schedule, or it can devise a specific plan of its own for approval by the National Archives.

“If the agency chooses to submit a new agency-specific records schedule, it will be available for request and comment to the public through the Federal Register process,” Ms. Hawkins wrote.