Despite the media focus on the destabilizing effect of 3D printers — which make plastic zip guns — the fact is that the rapid advances made possible by the fusion of education and commercially available technology has long been undermining the power of great states. That the North Koreans know how to do this was described by this article from Wired.
There is evidence that North Korea attempted a disinformation campaign that may have played a role in generating surprise. On December 8 , U.S. intelligence satellites spotted a train carrying rocket components en route from a missile plant to the launch pad. On December 9, North Korea stated that it had discovered a problem with the rocket and it was delaying the launch and extending the window by nearly a week. The next day, the South Korean government stated that there was “no sign” of an imminent launch and another report stated that the rocket had been removed from the pad. That last statement was provably false at the time – analysis of imagery from commercial remote sensing satellites showed the rocket was still on the pad. However, the same imagery also indicated possible maintenance work on the rocket, leading to an assessment from a former U.S. intelligence analyst that a launch was at least a week out.
To take advantage of this disinformation campaign, it also appears that North Korea timed the launch to correspond to a significant gap in coverage of the launch site by imaging satellites. An analysis done by Marco Langbroek, a Dutch hobbyist satellite observer, shows that the launch occurred at the end of a one-hour gap with no coverage by any known American intelligence, Japanese intelligence, or commercial imaging satellites in LEO. Other portions of the launch window had at most fifteen minutes between satellite overflights. This is backed up by a quote from an unnamed U.S. official, who said they relied too much on overhead satellite imagery for their warnings about the launch.
Kim knows when American satellites are overhead? So did the North Koreans have a super-secret spy in the Pentagon. Or did they simply use Microsoft’s Streets and Tips and equipment ordered from Binoculars.com to figure it out? Don’t laugh. It’s possible.
The 2012 Transit of Venus motivated hobbyists to look up into the Sky. One fellow, Tomas Maruska, figured out to track the ISS transiting Venus while transiting the sun. His equipment came by mail order.
holes were cut in a computer scanner box (19″ tall) for a pair of 10x Bausch & Lomb binoculars, and a Kodak DC290 digital camera; a sheet of HP premium printer paper was affixed to the bottom of the box, coated side up. To the right of the binoculars is affixed a true-sized DC290 self-portrait, made by photographing the camera in a mirror (hence the photo is a mirror image!). In addition to the large hole for the camera lens, holes were cut for the focusing sensor, the flash (which makes a red flash to set the focus, in some modes), and light & flash sensors.
There was one more thing. He needed a place on the ground where he could take the pictures; where he should be to view the orbiting object in question. That problem was solved by correlating the orbital profile of ISS with its ground track.
Of course it gives you the reciprocal too. It shows you what on the ground can be seen from above. Even a guy like Kim could figure out what that meant.
The vignette illustrates how capabilities which were once restricted to alphabet agencies in great powers are now in the hands of even the North Koreans, who presumably have purchased one or more of these devices and learned to use them.
And yet how many people, even the talking heads in the media, automatically assume that the supersecret eye in the sky can pass undetected over the primitives of the planet.
It would be interesting to know how many of today’s politicians, media pundits and bureaucrats still think that what was true in 1990 is still true today. Three-D printers, ubiquitous cell phone image sensors, computing power that dwarfs anything available only ten years ago — how much of this nascent reality has really seeped in to the narrative?
We will continue to be surprised by people with boxcutters, pressure cookers, home-made nerve gas — pray to God that’s all. We have the fire. We have the fire.