A Spy Agency's Challenge: How To Sort A Million Photos A Day The Earth's entire land mass is being photographed by satellites every single day. Trying to make sense of all these images falls to a U.S. spy agency many have never heard of.
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A Spy Agency's Challenge: How To Sort A Million Photos A Day

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A Spy Agency's Challenge: How To Sort A Million Photos A Day

A Spy Agency's Challenge: How To Sort A Million Photos A Day

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/807499102/815097936" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

No matter where you live or work, there is a satellite overhead that's snapping a photo. In fact, the entire landmass of the Earth is being photographed from space every day. For more on this, NPR's Greg Myre visited a spy agency many have never heard of.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: In 1960, the U.S. government began taking satellite photos, but it wasn't easy getting those pictures back to Earth. The satellite had to drop a small film capsule attached to a parachute. A military plane with a large hook flew by to collect the capsule in midair over the Pacific Ocean.

KATIE DONEGAN: They called the pilots who flew these missions star catchers because they were catching what looked like stars falling from the sky.

MYRE: Katie Donegan is with the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, or NGA for short. She says after all this effort for photos of Soviet military sites...

DONEGAN: Analysts might be lucky to get one or two images of their target per year.

MYRE: Fast-forward to 2011. The NGA scored a major coup by locating Osama bin Laden's hideout in Pakistan. The agency took detailed photos and also found it had archival pictures taken before the roof was placed on the house. This allowed the military to build a full-size replica of the exterior and the interior, where Navy SEALs practiced before the actual raid...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARACK OBAMA: Tonight I can report to the American people and to the world.

MYRE: ...Which led to this announcement by President Obama.

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OBAMA: The United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden.

MYRE: A tabletop model of bin Laden's compound is on display at NGA headquarters in Fort Belvoir, Va., just off a highway south of Washington. Today the NGA, one of the nation's least-known spy agencies, is undergoing another revolution. It's working closely with private commercial satellite companies, and this has created an endless stream of imagery from space. The NGA's Dave Gauthier here explains what this could mean for militaries worldwide.

DAVE GAUTHIER: We will all be observed every second of every day by something. And so we have to learn how to operate in the open, and it makes strategic surprise very difficult for everybody.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPING)

MYRE: After speaking with Gauthier in a secure briefing room, NPR is led inside an even more sensitive space - the operation center - but only to look, not to record. Dozens of analysts are working, yet it's dark, quiet as a library. All overhead lights are off. The darkness eliminates glare for the analysts who pore over satellite images on their computers. The sheer volume of incoming photos these days is overwhelming. Gauthier tells us how the partnership with private satellite companies has changed the game.

GAUTHIER: Most people have a notion of a satellite being a school-bus-sized instrument. What's amazing today is to see that a satellite that does imaging of the Earth is the size of a loaf of bread.

MYRE: This has created a division of labor. The government owns these very large satellites. They take high-resolution images of extremely sensitive sites, like nuclear facilities in North Korea. Commercial companies like Planet of San Francisco are putting up the much smaller satellites. Their photos aren't as detailed, but they see most everything. For the past three years, Planet has produced more than 1 million images a day showing the entire landmass of the Earth as it changes every 24 hours. The government buys those images from Planet, says Gauthier.

GAUTHIER: We can look at the whole haystack, and things that look like needles can gather our attention.

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MYRE: Rich Leshner runs Planet's office in Washington.

RICH LESHNER: Imagine laying the Earth flat, taking a picture of it from space with a really cool camera. We do that every day.

MYRE: Planet sell those pictures to a range of customers.

LESHNER: And those customers exist in the private sector. They exist in the not-for-profit sector. They exist in the government sector.

MYRE: The government used to have a monopoly on satellite images, but now anyone can get them. Environmentalists track melting sea ice. Farmers monitor crops. Aid groups keep tabs on refugee flows. So if all this is now being observed from space, what does this mean for your privacy? The Geospatial Intelligence Agency stresses that it doesn't look at images of the U.S. unless requested to do so by another government agency. This might involve checking the damage caused by a forest fire or a hurricane. Still, Dave Gauthier says people should have a general awareness.

GAUTHIER: Most people understand by carrying a cellphone with them that some of their information is being monitored, and we just have to recognize that there's an ability to observe more from space than ever before.

MYRE: Which means most everyone - governments, armies and even individuals - can be seen by the eyes in the sky.

Greg Myre, NPR News, Fort Belvoir, Va.

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