The challenges of gathering intelligence during a pandemic – addendum

We should not forget the use of satellite imagery as an intelligence tool that helps us understand the scale of pandemics.

A few days ago, I published a piece on some of the obstacles present in the collection of intelligence during a pandemic like COVID-19. I tried to illustrate that some forms of spying – the use of human sources for example – may be constrained, whereas others – the use of SIGINT (signals intelligence) specifically – are well-suited to these situations.

As it turns out, I omitted a very important tool: imagery (known in the business as IMINT – imagery intelligence). It was not that I was unaware of this aspect of information gathering: I was exposed to it on brief occasions during my time at CSE – Communications Security Establishment – in the 1980s and 1990s.

File:Soviet weaponry located at the Sandino Airfield, Nicaragua ...
Yes, imagery has been around a long time!
So what about IMINT?

So, I elected not to talk about IMINT as a useful addition to the suite of intelligence tools when I wrote on hoovering data in a crisis such as the current COVID-19 one. As I have stated on numerous occasions, I do not talk about issues on which I had no significant professional experience while I worked in intelligence. This is a rule I try to hold to tenaciously: I do not want to come across as an ‘expert’ when I know in my heart of hearts that I am not.

RELATED: SIGINT and HUMINT: The challenges of gathering intelligence during a pandemic

Alas, as I have noted, some of my former colleagues show no such compunction despite a (sometimes complete) lack of actual work ‘at the coalface’ on issues. They of course are allowed to call themselves whatever they want – it is a free country after all. So they have no problem labeling themselves (or labeled as others) ‘experts’. I just hope that consumers of ‘expertise’ have the wherewithal to determine when someone is talking out of true prior knowledge and when they are talking out of their hat.

Anyway, thanks to a contact of mine, I can now throw IMINT into the mix. This is NOT my view, but rather that of someone who worked imagery in Canada in the 1990s and hence IS someone with actual knowledge. Here is what that person sent me:

There is a third way aside from SIGINT and HUMINT through which the pandemic can be tracked, and that is by imagery intelligence – IMINT.  The US, for example, deploys highly advanced IMINT satellites, as well as the specialized U2R Dragon Lady aircraft, and RQ-4 Global Hawk drone, which are both IMINT collection aircraft.  Depending upon the nature of the intelligence target, IMINT can sometimes be the premier source of intelligence.  The three main kinds of imagery are electro-optical (what people would regard as a normal photograph), radar (like that from Canada’s RADARSAT constellation) and thermal.

As an example, images taken on March 1, 2020 by the commercial Maxar WorldView-3 satellite found evidence of what appears to be mass graves recently dug at a cemetery outside Qom in Iran.  People who have died from Covid-19 may be buried there, or the graves may have been dug in anticipation of large numbers of people dying. 

Raw IMINT evidence must be interpreted carefully by highly trained imagery intelligence analysts; an image, by itself, can be all too easily misinterpreted.  (Indeed, all forms of intelligence require a trained eye and mind in order to get the best out of them.)   Like any other kind of intelligence, IMINT has both its strengths and weaknesses.

There you have it, the utility of satellite imagery to help decision makers. Responsible leaders always consider intelligence to aid in policies and practices. Let’s hope the current Canadian government is among those.

Phil Gurski
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2 thoughts on “The challenges of gathering intelligence during a pandemic – addendum

  1. Apparently, CFINTCOM had CFJIC and MEDINT taking note of the clusters of flu cases in China’s Hubei Province around Wuhan City. There are several research facilities run by the CCP. And many “wet markets” catering to clients.

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