Tag Archives: surveillance

Answer Everything: satellites

Built by the Indian Space Research Organisation, the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle threw itself into the sky at 3.58am GMT on February 15th, 2017 It took with it a record-breaking 104 satellites—88 of which belonged to a single company, Planet, a remote sensing business based in San Francisco. Planet now has 149 satellites in orbit—enough for it to provide its customers with new moderately detailed images of all the Earth’s land surface every single day.  The satellites Planet makes—it calls them “doves”—measure 10cm by 10cm by 30cm.

Providing daily updated images of the earth is not enough… Processing the images to answer pressing questions: what has changed since yesterday? Is that illegal logging? What does the number of containers in these ports suggest about trade balances? Planet will be providing more such analysis itself, but there are also third parties eager to play. SpaceKnow, a startup which focuses on turning satellite data into analysis the financial community will pay for, has just raised $4m….

Planet is not the only company using small satellites to produce big data; the launch on February 15th also carried up eight ship-tracking satellites owned by Spire, just a couple of streets away from Planet. The companies hope that, as more and more customers come to see the value of an endlessly updated, easily searchable view of the world, insights from satellites will become ever more vital to the data-analysis market. The more normal their wares start to seem, the more spectacular their future may be

Excerpts from  Space Firms: Eyes on Earth ,Economist, Feb. 18, 2017

Drone Strikes: How to Deal with Surgically Implanted Explosive Devices

Menwith Hill  a Royal Air Force station near Harrogate, North Yorkshire, England has been described as the largest electronic monitoring station in the world.

The documents, provided to the Guardian by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden and reported in partnership with the New York Times, discuss how a joint US, UK and Australian programme codenamed Overhead supported the strike in Yemen in 2012….

British officials and ministers follow a strict policy of refusing to confirm or deny any support to the targeted killing programme, and evidence has been so scant that legal challenges have been launched on the basis of single paragraphs in news stories.

The new documents include a regular series of newsletters – titled Comet News – which are used to update GCHQ personnel on the work of Overhead, an operation based on satellite, radio and some phone collection of intelligence. Overhead began as a US operation but has operated for decades as a partnership with GCHQ and, more recently, Australian intelligence.

The GCHQ memos, which span a two-year period, set out how Yemen became a surveillance priority for Overhead in 2010, in part at the urging of the NSA, shortly after the failed 2009 Christmas Day bomb plot in which Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to detonate explosives hidden in his underpants on a transatlantic flight.  Ten months later a sophisticated plot to smuggle explosives on to aircraft concealed in printer cartridges was foiled at East Midlands airport. Both plots were the work of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the Yemen-based al-Qaida offshoot.

One Comet News update reveals how Overhead’s surveillance networks supported an air strike in Yemen that killed two men on 30 March 2012. The men are both described as AQAP members.  In the memo, one of the dead men is identified as Khalid Usama – who has never before been publicly named – a “doctor who pioneered using surgically implanted explosives”. The other is not identified…

US officials confirmed to Reuters in 2012 that there had been a single drone strike in Yemen on 30 March of that year. According to a database of drone strikes maintained by the not-for-profit Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the only incident in Yemen on that date targeted AQAP militants, causing between six and nine civilian casualties, including six children wounded by shrapnel.  Asked whether the strike described in the GCHQ documents was the same one as recorded in the Bureau’s database, GCHQ declined to comment.

The incident is one of more than 500 covert drone strikes and other attacks launched by the CIA and US special forces since 2002 in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia – which are not internationally recognised battlefields.  The GCHQ documents also suggest the UK was working to build similar location-tracking capabilities in Pakistan, the country that has seen the majority of covert strikes, to support military operations “in-theatre”.

A June 2009 document indicates that GCHQ appeared to accept the expanded US definition of combat zones, referring to the agency’s ability to provide “tactical and strategic SIGINT [signals intelligence] support to military operations in-theatre, notably Iraq and Afghanistan, but increasingly Pakistan”. The document adds that in Pakistan, “new requirements are yet to be confirmed, but are both imminent and high priority”….

By this point NSA and GCHQ staff working within the UK had already prioritised surveillance of Pakistan’s tribal areas, where the majority of US covert drone strikes have been carried out. A 2008 memo lists surveillance of two specific sites and an overview of satellite-phone communications of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, in which nearly all Pakistan drone strikes have taken place, among its key projects.

British intelligence-gathering in Pakistan is likely to have taken place for a number of reasons, not least because UK troops in Afghanistan were based in Helmand, on the Pakistani border.One of the teams involved in the geo-location of surveillance targets was codenamed “Widowmaker”, whose task was to “discover communications intelligence gaps in support of the global war on terror”, a note explains.

Illustrating the close links between the UK, US and Australian intelligence services, Widowmaker personnel are based at Menwith Hill RAF base in Yorkshire, in the north of England, in Denver, Colorado, and in Alice Springs in Australia’s Northern Territory.

Other Snowden documents discuss the difficult legal issues raised by intelligence sharing with the US….The UK has faced previous legal challenges over the issue. In 2012, the family of a tribal elder killed in Pakistan, Noor Khan, launched a court case in England in which barristers claimed GCHQ agents who shared targeting intelligence for covert strikes could be “accessory to murder”. Judges twice refused to rule on the issue on the grounds it could harm the UK’s international relations.

Excerpts from Alice Ross and James Ball,  GCHQ documents raise fresh questions over UK complicity in US drone strikes,  Guardian, June 24, 2015

FISA Court and Transparency: public information and informed debate

public information

According to the Opinion of Judge F. Dennis Saylor of the FISA court, of Sept. 13, 2013 in response to a motion by the ACLU for release of certain opinions of the FISA court:

“The unauthorized disclosure in June 2013 [Edward Snowden disclosure] of a Section 215 order, and government statements in response to that disclosure, have engendered considerable public interest and debate about Section 215 of the Partiot Act. Publication of FISC opinions relating to this provision would contribute to an informed debate. Congressional amici emphasize the value public information and debate in representing their constituents and discharging their legislative responsibilities. Publication would also assure citizens of the integrity of this Court’s proceedings.

In addition, publication with only limited redactions may now be feasible, given the extent of the government’s recent public disclosures about how Section 215 is implemented. Indeed, the government advises that a declassification review process is already underway.  In view of these circumstances, and as an exercise of discretion, the Court has determinedthat it is appropriate to take steps toward publication of any Section 215 Opinions that are not subject to the ongoing FOIA litigation…”

Excerpt, See United States Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, In Re Orders of this Court Interpreting Section 215 of the Patriot Act, Docket No. Misc. 13-02

Surveillance State: how China helps Africa

A Chinese surveillance firm Nanjing Les Information Technology has won a $5 million contract to install an integrated urban surveillance system (IUSS) project in the Kenyan city of Nairobi.  The project is planned to be completed by February 2013, a senior Kenyan official disclosed on Tuesday, according to a Baku-APA report.  Nairobi Metropolitan Minister Jamleck Kamau said the security surveillance equipment is planned to help monitor traffic and thwart potential terrorist attacks in the city.  “The system will enable live streaming of video from different areas of the city as well as record and store video for later viewing,” Kamau reportedly told journalists in Nairobi. “The system is of an open architecture which means it will enable scaling up later and connection of existing and/or any other private entities.”

The minister said the system could even capture speeding vehicles’ number plate details in the Nairobi Central Business District (CBD).  Phase one of the project is expected to be installed at 51 traffic lights and crime spots within the CBD.  Kamau said Nanjing Les Information Technologies won the tender among 27 firms which had applied and returned the forms on the grounds of technical capacity and better pricing ($5 million).

In May this year it was announced that Kenya would soon begin installing close-circuit television cameras across the country, starting with the capital Nairobi, after receiving a $100 million grant from China.  “We are going to start the installation almost immediately,” Prime Minister Raila Odinga told Kenya’s parliament at the time. “And this is going to spread to other cities, Mombasa is next, then Kisumu and other cities.”  He said that Kenya had received a US$100 million grant from China for the project, and that the goal is to stop terrorism and improve security.

Nairobi blames Somali-based al Shabaab militants for cross-border raids and kidnappings that have threatened the country’s multi-million dollar tourism industry. Since Kenya sent troops into Somalia last year, militants have threatened reprisals if Kenyan troops do not withdraw.  “The country is at the moment facing a lot of security challenges arising from the operation in Somalia,” Odinga said. “With Al Shabaab’s capability to wage conventional warfare completely degraded, the militia has resorted to guerrilla tactics. This includes the use of grenades, improvised explosive devices and sporadic shootings to attack business premises, security forces and members of the public.”

Chinese firm receives $5 million Nairobi surveillance contract, DefenceWeb, Nov. 30,2012

Battlespace: the Space-Based Infrared System and Missile Defense

The Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS) is a consolidated system intended to meet the United States’ infrared space surveillance needs through the first two to three decades of the 21st century. The SBIRS program is designed to provide key capabilities the areas of missile warning  (MW), missile defense (MD) and battlespace characterization.

SBIRS is an integrated “system of systems” that will include satellites in geosynchronous orbit (GEO), sensors hosted on satellites in highly elliptical orbit (HEO), and ground-based data processing and control. SBIRS ground software integrates infrared sensor programs of the U.S. Air Force (USAF) with new IR sensors. SBIRS continues to struggle with cost overruns…. By September 2007, the expected project cost had increased to $10.4 billion

The original contract consisted of 2 HEO satellite sensors and 2-3 GEO sensors (and satellites) with an option to buy a total of 5 GEOs.

Exceprts from Wikipedia, SBIRS

Lockheed Martin’s SBIRS contracts include four highly elliptical orbiting (HEO) payloads, four GEO satellites, and ground assets to receive, process, and disseminate the infrared mission data. Lockheed Martin expects to receive funding to begin long lead parts procurement for the fifth and sixth GEO satellite by the end of the year (2012).

Lockheed Martin has received the GEO-4 (May 2012).   The GEO-4 structure, identical to the previous three SBIRS GEO spacecraft, is made from lightweight, high-strength composite materials designed to withstand the accelerations and vibrations generated during launch and support the spacecraft throughout on-orbit operations.  According to Lockheed Martin “Delivery of the SBIRS GEO-4 core structure is a major milestone indicating the program is continuing to meet its commitments….Based on lessons learned from the first two SBIRS geosynchronous satellites, production of GEO-3 and GEO-4 is proceeding very well. In addition, we have a number of affordability initiatives in place jointly with the Air Force to continually reduce the cost of each follow-on SBIRS satellite.”

Excerpts, Lockheed Martin Delivers Core Structure for Fourth SBIRS Satellite, Press Release Lockheed Martin, May 24, 2012

See also US Air Force

The “Mystery” of X-37B

Very few people know the purpose behind the Air Force’s X-37B, even while it continues to orbit close to a Chinese space lab.The military’s mysterious, experimental unmanned space plane is doing such a good job that its mission has been extended indefinitely–if only anyone knew what its mission was.  Details on the mission involving the X-37B are virtually nonexistent. The official U.S. Air Force fact sheet says the vehicle is being used as an “experimental test program to demonstrate technologies for a reliable, reusable, unmanned space test platform for the U.S. Air Force.”

In November, the Air Force announced that the X-37B’s mission was being extended beyond its planned 270 days. At a breakfast with reporters Thursday, General William Shelton, head of the Air Force Space Command, said the mission, whatever it is, has been extended indefinitely.”We don’t have an exact re-entry date for it, but we’ve had a successful mission and we’re very happy with its performance,” he said. “That vehicle is performing a great service.”

Asked to give adjectives for the X-37B, he offered up “spectacular,” and “game-changing.”  In January, Spaceflight magazine reported that the vehicle is closely following the orbit of China’s spacelab, Tiangong-1, leading the magazine to suspect that the X-37B is spying on that satellite.  “Space-to-space surveillance is a whole new ball game made possible by a finessed group of sensors and sensor suites, which we think the X-37B may be using to maintain a close watch on China’s nascent space station,” Spaceflight editor David Baker told the BBC in January. China is expected to send manned missions to Tiangong-1 later this year.Other experts have refuted Baker’s claims, speculating that the X-37B could be used to covertly deploy smaller satellites, while conspiracy theorists have wondered if the X-37B could deliver weapons from space.

Here’s what is known about the X-37B: The 29-foot ship was built in a Huntington Beach, Calif., lab by Boeing. It looks like a miniature, solar-powered version of a space shuttle, and it’s the second “orbital test vehicle” the military has launched into space–the first was launched in 2010. The Air Force calls it the “newest and most advanced re-entry spacecraft,” and it has the ability to land autonomously. Technologies being tested “include advanced guidance, navigation and control, thermal protection systems, avionics, high temperature structures and seals, conformal reusable insulation, lightweight electromechanical flight systems, and autonomous orbital flight, reentry and landing.”

Beyond that, the X-37B has been shrouded in secrecy–from its mission to its budget. Thursday, Shelton repeatedly dodged questions about what the military is up to with the ship.”I think there’s a good reason to keep [the budget of the X-37B] as quiet as we possibly can,” he said. “If you reveal budgets, you sometimes reveal the capabilities, the amount of technology inserted into a program. It’s a good, strategic national security decision

Jason Koebler, Military’s Secret ‘Space Plane’ Mission Extended Indefinitely: Very few people know the purpose behind the Air Force’s X-37B, even while it continues to orbit close to a Chinese space lab,chicagotribune.com, May 26, 2012

United States Military Strategy 2012 and beyond

Excerpts, Remarks by President Obama on the Defense Strategic Review, The Pentagon, Jan. 5, 2012

Now we’re turning the page on a decade of war. Three years ago, we had some 180,000 troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Today, we’ve cut that number in half. And as the transition in Afghanistan continues, more of our troops will continue to come home…

As I made clear in Australia, we will be strengthening our presence in the Asia Pacific, and budget reductions will not come at the expense of that critical region. We’re going to continue investing in our critical partnerships and alliances, including NATO, which has demonstrated time and again — most recently in Libya — that it’s a force multiplier. We will stay vigilant, especially in the Middle East.  As we look beyond the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — and the end of long-term nation-building with large military footprints — we’ll be able to ensure our security with smaller conventional ground forces. We’ll continue to get rid of outdated Cold War-era systems so that we can invest in the capabilities that we need for the future, including intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, counterterrorism, countering weapons of mass destruction and the ability to operate in environments where adversaries try to deny us access.

So, yes, our military will be leaner, but the world must know the United States is going to maintain our military superiority with armed forces that are agile, flexible and ready for the full range of contingencies and threats.

Press Release, The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, Jan. 05,2012