Nuclear Weapons

How Did We Get Here? Emergence of Tradecraft and Tools from the Intelligence Community to the Open Source Community

Allison Puccioni | July 2022


How did satellite imagery become so ubiquitous, and what does it mean for how journalists conduct research and analysis?

Journalists have more access to information than ever, including tools that were long relegated to government intelligence agencies. Many of these are emerging into the commercial industry and are newly available to journalists and researchers all over the world.

At our Stanley Center for Peace and Security workshop on June 28, 2022, I discussed with amazing journalists around the world a tradecraft that I’ve been working with for 30 years: the tradecraft of imagery analysis. This capability has only become remotely available with the emergence of commercial satellites about 20 years ago, but has only been used by a handful of journalists, largely in the United States, United Kingdom, and Europe. But as newer, high-resolution imaging satellites are launched every quarter, it is becoming easier and cheaper to buy a picture taken from space or even tell a satellite company where and when you want a picture taken, and they will point a satellite to shoot the photo for you.

There are thousands of satellites circling the Earth, but until recently, only one or two could take a picture clear enough to see human activity—like cars on a road, people’s shadows, or types of aircraft—at scale. Before that, satellites this good were held within the domain of the two Cold War superpowers, and the only people who could “point and shoot” were high-ranking policymakers and warfighters from those countries.

So how did we get from such secret government systems—a trillion-dollar intelligence apparatus—to a robust commercial industry whereby over 50 high-resolution commercial imaging satellites orbit above us today? Why can we now purchase an image for between $128 and $700 a shot anywhere on earth? And why, if at all, might any of this matter to journalists attending the East-West Center International Media Conference?

The history of long-range surveillance dates back to the cradle of civilization: people have been trying to see what other people are doing without having the other people know they are being watched since before recorded history. Some of the oldest man-made structures in existence were watchtowers, and Sun Tzu’s 2,500-year-old manual The Art of War devotes a chapter to surveillance and “knowing the enemy.” As soon as cameras were invented, people were trying to connect them together. The Italians were the first to attempt aircraft-based photo reconnaissance, in the Italo-Turkish war in 1911. But their cameras did not have the shutter speed necessary to successfully photograph anything as the airplane flew over the battlefield. Undeterred, the Italians attempted to replace the camera payload with an actual sketch artist commanded to draw the battlefield instead. The Italians may not have been successful, but their attempt underscored the desire for aerial reconnaissance even before the technology was there.

The French and the Germans were the first to succeed, with help from some enlisted avian reconnaissance platforms. They mounted small cameras on pigeons in successful campaigns to photograph each other’s territory. The pigeon reconnaissance was a veritable success, and pigeons were used to collect imagery throughout World War I. World War II and the Cold War led to the potential for war on a global scale with nuclear weapons and the rockets that could deliver such weapons at intercontinental range. With this arms race and the space race came a third race that required as much engineering and scientific talent and nearly as much money: the satellite race. Both the United States and the Soviet Union devoted time and treasure to developing space satellites that could take pictures of each other’s burgeoning nuclear weapons and missile programs. This was a secret race; US satellites were so classified that the United States only acknowledged their existence by accident in the 1970s when President Jimmy Carter alluded to them in a speech at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

Yet somehow, by the 1990s, the US government began spending massive amounts of money to establish and support commercial satellite imagery. Why? First, the need for satellite imagery is insatiable, as each image that yields an answer to a question often leads to fifty other questions. Second, many defense-industry companies building customized intelligence systems were answering the mail but not yielding innovation that would lead to cheaper or better technology in the future. And because the commercial tech sector at the time was flourishing, there was a promise of comparable capabilities at a lower cost.

By the mid-2000s, American commercial companies could launch a high-resolution imaging satellite for about a half-billion dollars, which was a fraction of what the government would pay, in theory, for large-scale space-based systems. By 2011, two US and one French company were manufacturing high-resolution imaging satellites, and by 2013, two Silicon Valley and Stanford-accelerated companies, SkyBox and Planet Labs, figured out how to use components from common electronics like cell phones to drastically reduce the size and weight of high-res imaging satellites, so something that was once the size of a Mercedes van could be scaled down to the size of a beer keg, allowing for multiple “small-sats” to be launched on the same rocket. Today, many commercial high-res imaging satellites cost roughly $10 million to build and launch.

So what was one commercial satellite in 2008 is now “I lost count at 50” in 2022. Where we imagery analysts were struggling to find imagery in 2008, we now have hundreds of millions of kilometers’ worth of archival satellite imagery and too few imagery analysts to interpret them. Western media agencies are standing up entire visual investigations teams. The 2020 Pulitzer Prize was awarded to a team of investigators who used satellite imagery to track construction of prison camps. Even still, we as journalists are vastly undervaluing and underutilizing satellite imagery. It’s time for journalists everywhere to start thinking about what question a satellite image could answer with every research topic, and how to incorporate this new type of medium into the analytical workflow.


Allison Puccioni is an open-source imagery analyst and founder-principal of Armillary Services.

“How Did We Get Here? Emergence of Tradecraft and Tools from the Intelligence Community to the Open Source Community” written by Allison Puccioni and delivered as a lightning talk for the Stanley Center for Peace and Security as part of the East-West Center’s International Media Conference “Connecting in a Zero Trust World” on June 29, 2022, in Honolulu, Hawaii.