Satellites: Watch Your Every Move

Big Brother is already here!
satellite image of earth in the night

In 2013, a satellite image showed immaculate garden with neat rows growing on Curtis W.Croft’s property. The police in Grants Pass, Oregon, used Google Earth to get the image when it acquired the clue that Croft was growing marijuana illegally in his backyard. The police raided his house and seized 94 plants. Similarly, human rights activists used satellite imagery to bring the world’s attention to the atrocities on Uighur by the Chinese government. Though the government officials have continuously denied the presence of reeducation camps in Xinjiang province, calling them as “vocational schools’  but the activists used satellite images to show that countless schools are surrounded by watchtowers and razor wire.

The Brazilian police also took advantage of this technology in 2018. In the state of Amapa, the cops used real-time satellite imagery to identify the place where trees had been ripped out of the soil. Eventually, it revealed that the site was being used to illegally produce charcoal, and arrested eight people suspected of involvement in the crime.

With every passing year, there is an improvement in the image quality produced by commercially available satellites. However, it seems that there is no control over the number of satellites in orbit. This is a point to worry. In 2008, 150 Earth observation satellites were present in orbit; by now there are 768.  Those days are not far away when the satellite companies would offer 24-hour real-time surveillance. Privacy advocates forewarn that innovation in satellite imagery is overtaking the US government’s ability to regulate the technology. They pressed on imposing stricter limits now or otherwise one day everyone would be toying with the tool whether the ad companies or suspicious spouses or terrorist organizations. This means that anyone could be watching anyone at any time. Sigh. Well not to mention that it was the technology that was once used only by the government spy agencies.

Clearer images

A North Korean nuclear site

The commercial satellite imagery has grown over a period of time. It enables us to see a car but yet unable to tell the make and model. A community of “dot watchers” fans can keep track of the cyclists of their several days’ route. A farmer can keep a check on crop’s health, but surprisingly, people could not track the movement of a neighbor. This limitation is on purpose. US federal regulations bound images taken by commercial satellites to a resolution of 25 centimeters, or about the length of a man’s shoe. On the other hand, military spy satellites can capture images far more granular.

To assure most customers, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in 2014  relaxed the limit from 50 cm to 25cm, making the resolution finer than before. It has helped in several walks of life. For e.g, the farmers can use it to monitor flooding to protect their crops. More on, investors can predict oil supply from the shadows cast inside oil storage tanks. Human rights organizations kept a check on the migration of refugees from Myanmar and Syria.

With the advancement in satellite imagery, there would be no limitation for the investors and businesses to take advantage of this technology. BlackSky Global guarantees to revisit most major cities more than 70 times a day. Formerly DigitalGlobe and now Maxar which launched the first commercial Earth observation satellite in 1997, is making a constellation that will be able to revisit spots 15 times a day. The imaging company Planet Labs currently retains 140 satellites, enough to pass over every place on Earth once a day. Gladly, not enough to track an individual’s every move, but surprisingly it would show the timings of a car parked at different places.

To further exploit the technology, some companies are even offering live video from space. In 2014, a Silicon Valley startup called SkyBox (later renamed Terra Bella and purchased by Google and then Planet) began advertising HD video clips about 90 seconds long. Another company known as EarthNow says it will offer continuous real-time monitoring with a delay of hardly about one second though some think it is exaggerating its capabilities. Everybody is trying to get closer to a “living map,” according to Charlie Loyd of Mapbox, which makes custom maps for companies like Snapchat and the Weather Channel. But it is nowhere sooner: “We’re an extremely long way from high-res, full-time video of the Earth.”

The breakthrough development in Earth observation has come from radar sensing and hyperspectral images that capture electromagnetic wavelengths outside the visible spectrum.  Clouds can hide the land in visible light, but satellites can pierce them using synthetic aperture radar, which emits a signal that reflects off the sensed object and back to the satellite. It can find out the height of an object down to a millimeter. Since the 1970s, NASA has used synthetic aperture radar, but the US has approved it for commercial use in 2018 only to demonstrate its power and political sensitivity. In 1978, military officials apparently blocked the release of radar satellite images that revealed the location of American nuclear submarines.

For now, farmers can make use of hyperspectral sensing to tell whether the crop is in its growth cycle. Geologists can engage it to detect the texture of rock that might be favorable to excavation.  Military agencies or terrorists can use it to identify underground bunkers or nuclear materials.

Surely, there will be an enhancement in the resolution of commercially available imagery. In the competitive market of international satellite companies, the pressure would continue to mount on NOAA’s 25-centimeter cap. And even if it doesn’t, no one can stop a Chinese company from taking and selling 10 cm images to American customers. The senior director of policy for the Satellite Industry Association, Therese Jones expects that other international companies are going to start providing higher-­resolution imagery than they legally allow and the company would want to reduce the limit as far as possible.

The ability to process imagery in large quantities is what makes the imagery more potent. Analytics companies like Orbital Insight and SpaceKnow provide visual data into algorithms designed to enable anyone with an internet connection to comprehend the pictures collectively. For instance, the actual GDP of China’s Guangdong province can be calculated based on the light it emits at night, and investors can use this analysis. But burglars could also check a city to decide which families are out of town most often and for how long.

tracking a car from a spy satellite

Satellite and analytics companies say they’re cautious to de-identify their data, wiping off all the identifying characteristics. However, even if facial recognition is not possible, the images if matched against other data streams such as GPS, security cameras, social media posts could be a risk to privacy. “People’s movements, what types of shops do you go to, where do your kids go to school, what type of religious institutions do you visit, what are your social patterns,” told Peter Martinez from the Secure World Foundation. “All of these types of questions could, in principle, be questioned, should someone be interested.

Not to forget that the satellite imagery can be misleading. How can we forget when George W. Bush administration used it to map the case that Saddam Hussein was build up stocks of chemical weapons in Iraq. Its obvious objectivity can lead to false deductions.  There was also a breach of security when in 2018, a Russian mapping firm unfocused the locations of sensitive military operations in Turkey and Israel—unintentionally revealing their existence, allowing web users to trace the sites on other open-source maps.

Things can go wrong with satellite imagery even if done with good intentions. In 2012, as conflict surged on the border between Sudan and South Sudan, the Harvard-based Satellite Sentinel Project published an image that showed a construction crew constructing a tank-capable road leading to an area seized by the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army. The intention was to alert the citizens about the approaching tanks so they could leave. But the SPLA checked the images too, and within thirty-six hours it confronted the road crew consisting of Chinese civilians recruited by the Sudanese government, killing few of them, and kidnapped the remaining. Being an activist, one’s instinct is often to release more information, says Nathaniel Raymond, a human rights expert who headed the Sentinel project. But he’s learned that one has to take into account who else might be watching.

Costing the Earth?

Price is a reason that might save us from being watched all the time. According to some satellite entrepreneurs, there isn’t enough demand to pay for an arrangement of satellites capable of day-and-night monitoring at resolutions under 25 cm.

“It becomes a question of economics,” says Walter Scott, founder of DigitalGlobe, now Maxar. Meanwhile few companies are starting relatively cheap “nanosatellites” —the 120 Dove satellites established by Planet, for example, are “orders of magnitude” inexpensive than traditional satellites, according to a spokesperson. However, there’s a limit to how small they can get and still capture hyper-detailed images.  According to Scott, it is a basic fact of physics that aperture size determines the limit on the resolution one can get. At a given altitude, one needs a specific size telescope, he added. That is, in Maxar’s case, an aperture of about a meter across, mounted on a satellite the size of a small school bus. Bigger satellites mean bid budget launches, so companies would need a financial incentive to collect such granular data.

Despite of all this, there is a high demand for imagery with sub–25 cm resolution—and a supply of it. For example, some insurance underwriters use airplanes and drones to get a certain level of detail to spot trees drooping from a roof, or to discriminate a skylight from a solar panel. But if the price of satellite images drop far enough, insurance companies would probably switch over.

Drones steal the show when it comes to better images when compared with satellites, but drones are limited in where they can go. In the US, the Federal Aviation Administration forbids commercial flying drones over groups of people, and one has to register a drone that weighs more than half a pound (227 grams) or so. Though there are no such limitations in space.  Signed in 1967 by the Soviet Union, the US  and dozens of UN member states, the Outer Space Treaty gives all states free access to space, and subsequent agreements on remote sensing have enshrined the principle of “open skies.”  It was suitable during the Cold War when superpowers kept an eye on other countries to check if they were abiding by the arms agreement. Well, who thought that one day it would be possible for anyone to obtain detailed images of almost any location.

And then there are the tracking devices we carry around in our pockets, known as smartphones. No doubt that GPS data from the cell phone is a potent privacy warning but you can at least leave your phone at home. But it’s harder to dodge a satellite camera.” There’s some element of ground truth that satellites have that maybe your cell phone or digital record or what happens on Twitter [doesn’t],” tells Abraham Thomas, chief data officer at the analytics company Quandl. “The data itself tends to be naturally more accurate.”

A breach of privacy


It is difficult to draw a line on what is legal and illegal when it comes to satellite imagery. American privacy laws are unclear when it comes to satellites. In 2015, the New Mexico Supreme Court announced that an “aerial search” by police without a warrant was unauthorized. The question arises whether an act of surveillance violates someone’s “reasonable expectation of privacy.” A picture, taken on a public event: fine. A photo shot by a drone through somebody’s bathroom window: perhaps not. A satellite orbiting hundreds of miles up, taking a video of a car pulling into the driveway? Unclear.

The US government should not adopt the powerless policy. It can control how American customers use foreign imagery. The government should step in If US companies are profiting from it in a way that violates the privacy of US citizens.

Raymond debates that protecting ourselves will mean reconsidering confidentiality itself.  According to him, current privacy laws focus on threats to the rights of individuals. But those protections “are outdated in the times of AI, geospatial technologies, and mobile technologies, which not only use group data but run on group data as gas in the tank,” Raymond says. Controlling these technologies will mean conceiving of privacy as applying to both individuals and groups.

Till we can all settle on data privacy norms, Raymond says, it will be hard to create lasting rules around satellite imagery. “We’re all trying to figure this out,” he says. “It’s not like anything’s riding on it except the future of human freedom.

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