Last August, Jeffrey Lewis saw a North Korean propaganda video, posted in April 2012, which showed its missile launchers holding intercontinental ballistic missiles, shot from an oddly-shaped building.
He was curious. So with a team of students, he modeled what the building would look like and searched for what North Korean defectors had said about the building where the missile launchers were supposedly made.
"I will admit I got a little bit obsessed with this," he says.
They looked for a match on Google Earth and later bought a few satellite photographs for several hundred dollars.
They found the buildings.
Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies based in Monterey, Calif., recently published his team's account of locating the buildings. He says that with time and a little training, any persistent person with an Internet connection could have done this.
"There are functions that we imagine require either secret information, or spying, or specialized skills. And our point is that really, in a lot of cases, you don't need those things," Lewis says.
This isn't exactly new, but today it's much easier with social media tools and cheap or even free satellite images within the reach of nonprofits, researchers and ordinary people.
To cite another example, Lewis points to the Brown Moses blog, the effort of a formerly unemployed man in Britain who became a leading expert on weapons in Syria, including chemical weapons. He relied heavily on YouTube videos, among other sources.
Lewis claims these developments are changing international relations.
"Historically, what we did was tell — so we could have an account of someone who saw something that happened: I can tell you about a building, I can tell you about a massacre. But what we have now is the ability to show," he says, pointing to availability of Google Earth or other cheap satellite images.
"Having this kind of information means that experts, but also citizens, can make informed opinions about things rather than just taking the word of [a government]."
Government Lies Can Be Exposed
Access to better technology has transformed the work of David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security. Part of his group's work involves analyzing satellite images to tell people what's happening with nuclear weapons in countries like Iran and North Korea.
"We've done satellite imagery analysis since the late '90s, and when we started, the only imagery you could get was archived Russian spy satellite imagery with 2-meter resolution, and it was incredibly expensive, and so you couldn't do wide area searches," Albright says.
Now it's much easier. Albright points to his group's analysis of satellite images that were taken right after the explosion at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan in March 2011.
"We were able to use the imagery to show the damage that had been done at the time when Japan was really downplaying it," he says. Albright's group bought the satellite images of the Japanese plant.
Last summer, they simply used satellite images from Google Earth to show how Iran was expanding at the site of an old laser uranium enrichment plant.
There are still limitations, of course. Google Earth doesn't show current images, so you do have to pay for those, though it is cheaper now. Albright also points out it's still very hard to find secret nuclear sites simply because his group and others don't know where to look. But in some cases, it's not hard to find sites that have been described, if only in interviews.
"You can highlight problems that maybe the intelligence community knows well, but the public doesn't know," Albright says. "You can use the imagery in a positive way to increase transparency that makes it harder for governments to lie."
A More Powerful Story
The satellite photos also make for a better story, Albright notes.
"The imagery is very powerful," he says. "You can write your hearts out on a secret site in Iran, but if you show an image of it and it's news, it'll spread throughout the word where the written word hardly went anywhere."
In fact, U.S.-based Human Rights Watch has used satellite images to show what's happening in conflict zones like South Sudan, Syria and the Central African Republic.
Earlier this year, the group published a report with before-and-after satellite shots showing how entire neighborhoods had been systematically demolished. Human Rights Watch said the Syrian government carried out the demolitions because the areas were opposition strongholds.
"We've gone from essentially having nothing in 15 years to having just a fantastic constellation to pick from, so indeed, the prices have come down, the restrictions are almost nonexistent," says Joshua Lyons, satellite imagery analyst for the group. "It's possible now to order through my Web browser a new image over pretty much anywhere in the world in 12 hours.
"When you combine that dramatic sky view of what's happening on the ground with the first-hand testimony from people who were experiencing it personally, it gives a very complete and much more detailed appreciation and understanding of exactly what was happening," Lyons adds. "It's compelling evidence that's much easier for people to ingest."
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