EAMENA leads reform on satellite imagery restrictions in the Levant
Dr Michael Fradley writes
On 25 June 2020 it was announced at the 27th meeting of the Advisory Council on Commercial Remote Sensing (ACCRES) of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) that the Kyl-Bingaman Amendment (KBA) restrictions on the optical resolution of satellite imagery over Israel would be dramatically lowered from the current level of 2m Ground Sampling Distance (GSD) down to 0.4m GSD. This news, which is important for earth observation and remote-sensing research in the region, marks a major step forward in a campaign led by me and my late colleague Dr Andrea Zerbini to reform this regressive legislation, which impacted directly on the work of the EAMENA project in the Levant, particularly in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
This fundamental reform will now improve access to very high-resolution satellite imagery taken over Israel, the Occupied Palestinian Territories and the Golan Heights. Whereas previously imagery produced by U.S. satellites would be down sampled so that only an object 2m or larger would theoretically be visible, there will now be the possibility, depending on the capabilities of the satellite, to view images where objects as small as 0.4m in size will be visible (Fig.1). This should apply to satellite imagery captured in the future, as well as applying to previously restricted commercial imagery taken over the previous two decades, and earlier U.S. military satellite images. For archaeologists, this will see a major improvement in our ability to remotely identify archaeological sites, interpret the detailed form of those sites, and to more accurately monitor damage issues and future threats.
The KBA is a U.S. regulation which restricts the resolution of satellite imagery produced by U.S. companies covering Israel (and by implicit extension the Occupied Palestinian Territories and the Golan Heights), so that available imagery is relatively coarse and ‘blurred’ compared to imagery of other areas. It came in to being in the early stages of development of the commercial remote-sensing industry in the U.S. in the 1990s. As the Cold War came to an end, efforts were made under the Clinton administration in the U.S. to repurpose the espionage technology of satellites for wider commercial purpose, while also declassifying imagery collected by earlier U.S. military satellite missions in the 1960s and 1970s. The declassification of the Corona mission led to concern about the emerging satellite imaging industry on national security in Israel, and the resultant subsequent political lobbying in Washington led to the passing of the KBA by the U.S. Senate.
House Report 104-724 – NATIONAL DEFENSE AUTHORIZATION SEC. 1064. PROHIBITION ON COLLECTION AND RELEASE OF DETAILED SATELLITE IMAGERY RELATING TO ISRAEL.
(a) COLLECTION AND DISSEMINATION – A department or agency of the United States may issue a license for the collection or dissemination by a non-Federal entity of satellite imagery with respect to Israel only if such imagery is no more detailed or precise than satellite imagery of Israel that is available from commercial sources.
(b) DECLASSIFICATION AND RELEASE – A department or agency of the United States may declassify or otherwise release satellite imagery with respect to Israel only if such imagery is no more detailed or precise than satellite imagery of Israel that is available from commercial sources.
The brief wording of the law could be broken down into two sections, the first (a) covered future commercial satellite images, while the second sought to prevent further declassification of higher-resolution spy imagery from the KH-7 (Gambit) and KH-9 (Hexagon) missions. The phrase ‘available from commercial sources’ referred specifically to commercial imagery available from non-U.S. sources, which were barely existent in the 1990s, but was envisaged as a way of allowing U.S. companies to remain competitive against foreign companies in the future, and would be the key target of our reform campaign. While the U.S. satellite imagery industry was unhappy about this censorship when introduced, it being the only blanket censor applied by the U.S. government to any part of the world, the regulation was set in place at a limit of 2m GSD. This can be seen in comparison to the 0.8m GSD resolution attainable from the IKONOS sensor once operational in 2000, and commercial imagery available today is more likely to range from 0.25–0.6m GSD.
Fast forward to 2017, where the KBA was still in place with a 2m GSD restriction. While there was a sense that the KBA would be reviewed annually by the U.S. government, there is little evidence that this took place. Although there had been some calls for it to be revoked, particularly after the launch of online access systems such as Google Earth made this restriction readily apparent, the 2m GSD limit remained in place. There was also a wider lack of knowledge of the KBA among the remote-sensing community, with a general understanding that imagery of Israel was restricted, but not that it had the potential for reform in line with the capabilities of imagery produced outside of the U.S.
The EAMENA project had started in 2015, and while we too were vaguely aware of the KBA restrictions, it was only in late 2016 when the project received funding from the British Council’s Cultural Protection Fund to provide training in the EAMENA methodology to archaeologists and heritage professionals from the Palestinian Territories and five other countries, that these restrictions loomed firmly into view. Satellite imagery is a key tool used by EAMENA for survey and monitoring, but the 2m GSD limit over the Palestinian Territories was of very limited use for this methodology, lacking the details necessary to identify and monitor changes to heritages sites, particularly when compared to the c.0.5m GSD average that was accessible for other countries that we were working with as part of this funded project such as Jordan and Tunisia.