David Martin reports on a new, uncharted frontier in the collection of data created by hundreds of privately produced satellites whose millions of images are available to the public and not just the government. His story will be broadcast on 60 Minutes on Sunday, Jan. 27 at 7 p.m. ET/PT on CBS.
Planet Labs, the satellite company, has launched hundreds of small satellites for commercial use, such as monitoring the health of crops. They get over a million photos from them each day. “I’m always astonished that almost every picture we get down, we compare it to the picture from yesterday and something has changed,” says one of the company’s founders, Will Marshall.
Planet Lab has 200 customers, none more important than the U.S. Government. Martin was given rare access to the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency’s operations center, where data from U.S. government satellites and Planet Lab is secretly analyzed.
NGA Director Robert Cardillo now has access to millions more images than in the past, when the U.S. government had a monopoly on the collection of satellite data. “I’m quite excited about capabilities such as what Planet is putting up in space,” he tells Martin.
The NGA’s analysis of satellite imagery is used extensively by the military and can monitor the movements of foreign militaries, such as the Chinese expansion in the South China Sea. The raid on the compound of Osama bin Laden was made possible through satellite imagery.
Now the rest of the world has access to this technology, those working for the good and those who may be working for the bad. The NGA does not have the authority to declare secret any of the millions of images Planet Lab has collected so far and to come. It’s a new frontier with a multitude of possibilities that Marshall of Planet Labs says he is worried about, but nonetheless must explore. “I worry a lot and we wouldn’t have started Planet if we didn’t have a very strong conviction that the vast majority of the use cases are very, very positive.”