Export Controls on Machine Learning Software for Geospatial Imagery Analysis (Interim Final Rule)

Policy Details

Policy Details

Last Action
Public comment period closed
Date of Last Action
Mar 6 2020
Date Introduced
Jan 6 2020
Publication Date
Mar 3 2020

SciPol Summary

The Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) issued a rule restricting exports of certain machine learning software that can automatically identify objects of interest from geospatial images — images capturing some location on Earth's surface. According to the rule, this technology may provide the US with a “significant military or intelligence advantage.” Entities that export this type of software out of the country (not including Canada) must apply for a license. The BIS solicited public comments on this rule through March 6, 2020.

Deep Convolutional Neural Networks are machine learning softwares that automatically detect objects in geospatial imagery. They speed up the process of sorting through large numbers of images to identify notable objects. This type of software is subject to export restrictions if the tool:

  • Creates 3D coordinates (point clouds) out of different points of an object of interest, for example a truck. These coordinates can then be used by a graphical user interface to easily identify images where the truck is present from images without the truck. These “tagged” images are then used to train the software to automatically recognize trucks or other objects of interest.
  • Harmonizes image characteristics in terms of scale, color, and rotation across pictures to make sure the software can recognize the same object of interest on pictures with different image quality.
  • Uses certain machine learning techniques to teach the software to detect objects of interest out of large images so that the software can distinguish pictures with the truck of the previous example, from pictures without the truck.
  • Recognizes the objects of interest at different angles and positions; e.g., for any picture’s angle it recognizes the same truck.

The rule is in effect under a class of temporary export restrictions: the Export Control Classification Number (ECCN) 0Y521 Series. The ECCN classifies sensitive technology based on their functions and allows individuals to identify technology in the Commerce Control List (CCL) — items whose exports are restricted under the Export Administration Regulation (EAR). Emerging technologies often do not fall into preexisting commerce control categories. Consequently, the Department of Commerce, the Department of Defense, and the Department of State can propose a one-year restriction (under the 0Y521 status) to identify dual uses for the technology and potential national security risks. At the end of the one-year restriction, the technology needs to be upgraded into the more permanent CCL. Otherwise, the export restriction will be lifted.

Machine learning analysis of geospatial imagery presents civilian uses, but also various military uses, including software on sensors, drones, and satellites that can identify important military targets within a large geographical area. This rule shows that the BIS believes that exporting this software may lessen or eliminate US military advantage by offering adversaries knowledge about US intelligence tools and easing their counterintelligence strategies.