When some 140 Stanford students and faculty recently gathered to simulate an emergency session of the U.N. Security Council, they had some real-world data that had never been used before: satellite images of Iran’s Arak nuclear facility.
Students at the two-day simulation for CISAC’s signature class, “International Security in a Changing World,” were given this hypothetical allegation: Iran has violated the conditions of the November 2013 deal on its nuclear program by moving material between its nuclear facilities.
As the students were debating how to handle the allegation – purposely injected into the simulation in the form of a leak to heighten tensions – mock representatives of the International Atomic Energy Agency provided the delegations with satellite images that indicated no movement at the nuclear facility in question.
While the emergency was phony, the premise was very real. As were many of the documents, reports and satellite images used by the students and faculty to craft their stands and trip up their opponents as they played out their roles.
Skybox Imaging, a 5-year-old Silicon Valley firm started by four Stanford grads, provided the satellite images taken just days before the simulation in early February. The co-founders of Skybox established the information and analytics firm in 2009 using a business plan they developed as students in the class, “Technology Venture Formation.”
One of those co-founders, Dan Berkenstock, had also taken “International Security in a Changing World” as well as another popular class, “Technology and National Security,” co-taught by CISAC faculty member and former Secretary of Defense William Perry and Senior Fellow Siegfried Hecker.
Berkenstock, who was working on his Ph.D. in aeronautics and astronautics, became fascinated by ways technology might aid international security.
“The class became a major inspiration in starting Skybox,” Berkenstock said. “I was interested in satellites and the kind of data that they could create on the technical side, but I was really interested in much more of the analyses of those images and the stories that were locked within them.”
He said he realized that they could take the value of satellite imagery and “help people make better and safer decisions.”
Skybox, based in Mountain View, designed, built and then launched its first satellite, SkySat-1, from Russia last November. Two more satellites are scheduled to launch later this year; another six next year. The firm intends to eventually have 24 satellites in orbit to see any spot on earth multiple times a day. They also have produced the first high-resolution video from space.
“It’s about being able to monitor the ebb and flow of natural resources, the production of commodities, the activities of new construction and damage to old infrastructure and transportation,” Berkenstock said. “All those things, they define not just security; they really define our global economy. How many cars were there in the Walmart parking lot before the storm? How many tanks were there in a military base in Syria?”
Students were given two images that showed Iran's Arak nuclear facility on two different dates.
CISAC co-director, Amy Zegart, who co-teaches “International Security in a Changing World” with CISAC’s terrorism expert, Martha Crenshaw, said the Skybox images injected a dose of reality to the simulation.
“Students could see up close and personal just what satellite imagery of one of Iran's nuclear facilities looks like, what it shows, what it can't, what questions it raises,” she said. “Typically, students in international security classes see grainy satellite images from the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. It's important history, but it's distant. Skybox gave us fresh images from Iran's Arak reactor. The imagery was real, important, immediate, and cool.”
Zegart, one of the country’s leading intelligence experts, said Skybox is at the forefront of a “tectonic shift in intelligence.”
“It used to be that all the most important sources and methods of detecting threats like nuclear weapons programs rested in the hands of governments,” she said. “Not anymore. Enterprising companies, NGOs, and even individuals are producing and assessing information like never before – using commercial satellite images, smart phones, Google, you name it.”
Policymakers don’t control information like they used to, Zegart said. They have to find creative ways to harness new tools to understand security threats.
“Real world leaders are grappling with this new information universe, and we wanted Stanford students to grapple with it, too,” she said.
Keshav Dimri, a CISAC honors student who played the role of the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations, said the students did indeed grapple with the rapidly changing data they were given during the simulation.
“The use of satellite images was definitely a challenge because it forced us to back up our political rhetoric with technical data,” said Dimri, a history major. “The use of satellite imagery required many of us to leave our political science comfort zones and examine, analyze and quickly react to new data – the sort of spontaneous thinking we might need in a real negotiation.”
In the end, Dimri persuaded the class the allegations about movement at Iran’s nuclear plant were unfounded. While not resolving all of the outstanding historical issues, the students passed a resolution that allowed Tehran and the rest of the world to move forward.
Stanford Law School Professor Allen Weiner plays the UN Secretary-General.