Blogging on Issues of International and European Security

A Call For Innovation: Technology In The International Security Industry

Death From Above: Smoke permeates the air in Homs, Syria as satellite images show the destruction of the country from above (

Death From Above: Smoke permeates the air in Homs, Syria as satellite images show the destruction of the country from above (

by Akash Radia

In 2004, unabashed apathy shrouded the level of atrocities occurring in Sudan. Reporters and humanitarian aid was severely restricted [1] whilst ethnic cleansing of Sudan’s non-arab population took place, resulting in an estimated 480,000 deaths thus far, and over 2.5 million people left displaced [2]. The conflict between increasingly unruly government-backed militias and opposition rebel groups continues today, but the the international community can no longer claim ignorance to any form of genocide taking place. A most pivotal of developments in the past decade is that technology is being used as an innovative tool for international security missions and monitors. 

On Wednesday February 5th, ISIS participated in an online discussion with Josh Lyons, Human Rights Watch (HRW) Satellite Imagery Analyst. Lyons is a specialist at detecting war crimes using satellite images. The process can be seemingly arduous as specialists work with researchers to finalise locations to source images from and corroborate with on-the-ground accounts. Methods of destruction, when not obvious, are verified using videos from YouTube, and it is clear that a reliance on archival media and collaboration across various sectors is paramount to substantiate the project. Images from the gold mining village of Camp Bangui in the Central African Republic shows the level of analysis required to make assured conclusions, as experts compare with ‘burn scares’ in the ground with  in-tact buildings [3].

Scorched Earth: Satellite images of 'burn scars' from Camp Bangui, Central African Republic (

Scorched Earth: Satellite images of ‘burn scars’ from Camp Bangui, Central African Republic (

Remote villages like Camp Bangui are difficult to reach, and so satellite imagery is a beneficial technology being used by international monitoring organisations. However, within regions where the international aerie is more pronounced such as in South Sudan and Syria, digital imaging can still give substance to claims of war crimes, and put pressure on international organisations to act. In South Sudan, such pressure can be reserved for advocacy groups, who accuse the United Nations of ‘dragging their feet’ [4] and has also led to the formation of organisations, such as the Satellite Sentinel Project [5], dedicated to using satellite technology for this specific purpose. Still, nowhere more is the discrepancy between political statements and on-the-ground devastation at such a level of disparity than in Syria, and satellite imaging has been key in illustrating that fact. TIME Magazine’s Senior Editor Ishaan Tharoor puts it best: “On the world map, Syria remains a country. On the ground, it has devolved into a battlefield warred over by sectarian fiefdoms, guerrilla outfits, extremist militias, criminal gangs and a regime clinging grimly to its dwindling sources of power and legitimacy” [6]. The sliding maps shown via DigitalGlobe from Tharoor’s article highlight the change in aesthetic bestowed upon Syria’s architecture and once vibrant streets, from Damascus to Homs to Aleppo.

Innovation and International Security

There is not one major industry across the globe that technology has not permeated. There is not one sector where it is not changing the mode of operations. Without startling arguments of where technology (specifically big data & the controversy around the use of drones) and the security industry dangerously intersect (see: Edward Snowden, Wikileaks, and every major news site’s homepage), is the international security industry doing all it can to embrace technology for the purpose of indisputable good? Does the security industry encourage innovation and technology as much as business or medicine?

A competition launched by global information assurance firm NCC aims to address the issue. They are providing £10k to develop ideas that can improve cyber-security. There has never been a question of cyber attacks in the aforementioned conflict zones, but NCC’s call to action is just as relevant: “The good guys are too often playing catch up with the bad guys. We need new ideas and a fresh approach” [7].

There are fewer places to hide atrocities. Supposed chemical weapon attacks within Syria were immediately posted online, sent to media houses, and addressed by the international community. Still, there is one key aspect missing from the interaction between security and technology, and once again was proposed by NCC: “Many technologies are built with security as an afterthought; a bolt on that is added at the very end of a process, rather than being considered and built in from the outset” [8]. Generally, when we consider the resources that technology enables independent innovators to create a game for hurling a bird across a screen, why can we not encourage the same level of reward for original approaches towards technology in the security industry?

I asked Josh Lyons from HRW what technologies he would like to see. He was optimistic about companies that will “launch constellations of upwards of 50 or more micro satellites. Even 90 seconds of video is now possible.” He continued, “I think it may have a big impact but we will need to see.”

My (short) conversation with Josh Lyons

My (short) conversation with Josh Lyons

The jury is clearly still out on how the pace of technology will accommodate missions as beneficial to the international community as Lyons’s. Still, whilst the media continues to focus on technology and security from a detrimental point of view, I would prefer to be an optimist much like Lyons. True that whilst technology develops so too does the capacity of those who wish to exploit it, but monitoring technology for the purpose of humanitarian assistance, as well as defense technology, in as much as it is created for purpose specific capabilities within international security, can develop alongside other industries. It may have taken the industry some time to catch up, but there are two good times to plant a tree: five years ago, and right now.

You can view the full online discussion with Josh Lyons here and read more about security and technology from ISIS here.











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