Reader Question: Photo Intelligence


At the height of the Ukraine crisis, the New York times published pictures allegedly obtained from the Ukrainian authorities linking specific individuals to the Russian Army. I believe the statement made by the Times is that the pictures in question were proof positive that Russian special forces were active in Eastern Ukraine. In a post on this Blog,  I suggested that the proportions in those pictures were somewhat questionable. I also talked a little about photo intelligence.

It prompted a couple of reader questions. One reader wanted to know more about photo intelligence and how to get into that sort of work.

To begin, all of the component members in the U.S. military have intelligence ratings, and they require a considerable amount of training. The intelligence agencies are equally involved in photo analysis with comparable training requirements.

So what’s intelligence? Intelligence is the art / process of collecting data and conducting analysis to accumulate details about a situation, group or person. It is quite often of a predictive nature but more often tactical. Each detail represents a point, which when combined with all other points tells a story. Quite often, the most innocuous detail may very well be the one thing that connects all of the dots. Intelligence gathering and analysis is a systematic and tedious process of accumulating data; often taking years of work.

To illustrate the concept take a look at the picture above. Refrain from laughing because it’s less ridiculous than you may think. The picture is one of bird droppings on a concrete slab. What does it tell us (You’ll probably need to zoom in on the photo)?

  1. An analyst would say that although its is possible that only one bird was involved, there is a higher probability that multiple birds were involved.
  2. Note the presence of a shadow suggesting the existence of a structure. The structure is high enough to cast a shadow. By knowing the time of day the picture was taken it gives us an approximation of the sun’s position in the sky and from that we can estimate the height of the structure.
  3. Further note that the droppings tend to move in towards the structure. This suggests either the bird’s flight path but more likely that the bird was standing on some sort of aerial utility wire connecting to the structure.

All of these assumptions have probabilities of being correct but some have a higher probability than others. These are the thought processes that take place during photo analysis. You may have a satellite picture that shows combatant units, or the photo under analysis may reveal more subtle clues.

The end result is to take all of these discrete points, another way of saying data, and not simply connecting them but correlating them to arrive at a reasonably accurate intelligence assessment. When we say correlate we mean develop a degree of confidence that the individual data points are closely related.

Added 23 June 2014

Shane: here’s how an intelligence picture evolves from  this photo. Let’s assume that the picture was pulled from a smartphone during a raid. Other than the fact that it was on the phone, we know nothing about where the picture was taken, but the location may be linked to activities of interest to you, there are no other geo-references etc.

From the time of day the picture was taken, you know the relative position of the sun. In this case it was later in the afternoon so the sun was on its western arc; therefore the picture represents the east side of the structure. Next you have the theory that the birds were sitting on a utility cable or wire. Those normally run from a pole on a street to the structure. You also know that the house is in an older neighborhood. In developed countries modern housing developments have underground utilities. If you are in an underdeveloped nation, the presence of any utility service may be an indication of affluence.

So just from that snap shot, you can begin putting together a picture that’s very useful. When you combine the photo with ELINT intercepts and a variety of other sources you get intelligence that allows you to develop plans for a raid or support more direct surveillance of the location. It takes time and training. But if it’s the type of work that you want to do, I can think of nothing more interesting and rewarding. You’ll be working with teams and across many disciplines.

Good luck and keep in touch!

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