AI Satellite Image Analysis Will Be Regulated

Satellite programs have generally been some of the most secret  spying  programs. The first such program to take pictures from space, Corona, began in 1958, when the satellite successfully recorded its first  film. Only a few days later US President Dwight Eisenhowe was shown a spool of celluloid film with detailed images of  military installations in the old Soviet Union. 

Today, the use of  Artificial Inelligence (AI) to analyse satellite images could  revolutionise the way governments and researchers track changes in the world around them. 

But if you’re a US maker of such software, it’s about to become harder to export your products. New US Federal rules published on 6th January, affects software ‘specially designed’ to train deep learning neural networks on the analysis of geospatial imagery.

The software would be classified as a dual-use technology under the, Wassenaar Arrangement subject to many of the same restrictions for exporting arms. The Wassenaar Arrangement on Export Controls for Conventional Arms and Dual-Use Goods and Technologies is a is a multilateral export control regime (MECR) with 42 participating states including many former Warsaw Pact countries.

The Wassenaar Arrangement was established to contribute to regional and international security and stability by promoting transparency and greater responsibility in transfers of conventional arms. 

The Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) of the US Commerce Department has released for publication in the Federal Register an interim final rule, along with a request for comments, to amend the Export Administration Regulations (EAR). The aim is to make certain software specially designed to automate the analysis of geospatial imagery subject to the EAR and to impose a license requirement for the export and re-export of this software to all destinations, except Canada.

The new rule will go into effect in 60 days, though the public may submit comments on the rule for another 60 days after that. The rule affects software that would “provide a graphical user interface that enables the user to identify objects (e.g., vehicles, houses, etc.) from within geospatial imagery”.

Also software that “Trains a Deep Convolutional Neural Network to detect the object of interest from the positive and negative samples; and identifies objects in geospatial imagery using the trained Deep Convolutional Neural Network.”

Applying machine learning to the identification of objects in satellite imagery is a big US military concern.

Military leaders frequently talk about the wide disconnect between the amount of video and satellite footage that the United States collects and scarcity of analysts to look through the footage and see what’s relevant to operations.They’ve invested a-lot in software tools that can monitor or scan that footage, including satellite footage, and then tip a human analyst to pay attention to something of relevance. 

One of the best example is Project Maven, a military AI project to identify objects of interest or detect changes in scenery to help analysts and operators cut through lots of imagery and footage very quickly. The US military isn’t the only group or entity with a legitimate interest in overhead satellite imagery, and possibly automating the detection of objects of interest in that imagery.

For instance, hedge funds and other financial analysts use satellite images to predict retail trends, such as parking lot density around the holidays.Also healthcare researchers and epidemiologists can use satellite footage to track health trends also by monitoring parking lot density at hospitals and clinics.Non-profit civic research groups use satellite images to draw global attention toward events and happenings like resource pillaging and ethnic cleansing.

The rule change would have big effects for the future of software makers that are looking to produce AI tools for the analysis of satellite photos. But it could also, potentially, have a chilling effect on the ability of civilian groups to monitor changes and events of public interest.

DefenseOne:        KPMG:      The Verge:      National Security Arcive 1:     

National Security Archive 2:     Wassenaar Arrangement:

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