Omnivorous Analysis

Essay by Anne Lee Steele: “Satellite imagery has woven itself into the fabric of the internet. We recognize these crisp, high-definition, bird’s-eye-view images most commonly from Google Earth—but we employ them in much more besides: from reporting on stuck shipping containers to getting directions to a friend’s house, to tracking forest fires in real time and scrolling through real estate listings. Given their ever-widening range of commercial, consumer, and civic uses, it won’t surprise most people to hear that the industry that produces them (also known as Earth Observation, or EO) is growing at an exponential rate, and is only expected to expand further in the coming years.

Yet despite the prominence of satellite imagery in the geographical imagination of the internet, the imperatives of the industry are much less clear. The corporations that produce them are much less well known, and the military interests that back them remain as murky as ever. The highly visible commercial side of the industry is still deeply intertwined with its classified counterpart, and two companies, Maxar and Planet, have emerged to dominate the industry—supporting civilian functions with one hand, while supplying US defense needs with the other. 

Indeed, the ubiquity of commercial satellite imagery gives nearly anyone godlike powers of reconnaissance and surveillance not that far removed from those enjoyed by militaries and intelligence agencies—a fact that causes no small amount of anxiety within the Pentagon. The pervasiveness and power of their imagery compels us to ask: Where do they come from? And how are they being put to use?…(More)”.