US Spy Satellites Now Spying on Us

Gary Farber wants to know why I haven't written anything about this WSJ scoop: the Homeland Security Administration is going to make spy satellite imagery available to civilian law enforcement.

Access to the high-tech surveillance tools would, for the first time, allow Homeland Security and law-enforcement officials to see real-time, high-resolution images and data, which would allow them, for example, to identify smuggler staging areas, a gang safehouse, or possibly even a building being used by would-be terrorists to manufacture chemical weapons.

….Unlike electronic eavesdropping, which is subject to legislative and some judicial control, this use of spy satellites is largely uncharted territory. Although the courts have permitted warrantless aerial searches of private property by law-enforcement aircraft, there are no cases involving the use of satellite technology.

I guess it's because I saw it coming. Back in 2000 I wrote:

Unless social, legal, or technical forces intervene, it is conceivable that there will be no place on earth where an ordinary person will be able to avoid surveillance. In this possible future, public places will be watched by terrestrial cameras and even by satellites. Facial and voice recognition software, cell phone position monitoring, smart transport, and other science-fictionlike developments will together provide full and perhaps real time information on everyone’s location. Homes and bodies will be subject to senseenhanced viewing. All communications, save perhaps some encrypted messages, will be scannable and sortable. Copyright protection “snitchware” and Internet-based user tracking will generate full dossiers of reading and shopping habits. The move to web-based commerce, combined with the fight against money laundering and tax evasion, will make it possible to assemble a complete economic profile of every consumer. All documents, whether electronic, photocopied, or (perhaps) even privately printed, will have invisible markings making it possible to trace the author. Workplaces will not only be observed by camera, but also anything involving computer use will be subject to detailed monitoring, analyzed for both efficiency and inappropriate use. As the cost of storage continues to drop, enormous databases will be created, or disparate distributed databases linked, allowing data to be cross-referenced in increasingly sophisticated ways.

In this very possible future, indeed perhaps in our present, there may be nowhere to hide and little that can stay hidden.

Once the sole property of governments, high-quality satellite photographs in the visible spectrum are now available for purchase. The sharpest pictures on sale today are able to distinguish objects two meters long,148 with a competing one-meter resolution service planned for later this year.

Meanwhile, governments are using satellites to regulate behavior. Satellite tracking is being used to monitor convicted criminals on probation, parole, home detention, or work release. Convicts carry a small tracking device that receives coordinates from global positioning satellites (“GPS”) and communicates them to a monitoring center. The cost for this service is low, about $12.50 per target per day.

Meanwhile, the United Kingdom is considering the adoption of a GPSbased system, already field tested in the Netherlands and Spain, to prevent speeding. Cars would be fitted with GPS monitors that would pinpoint the car’s exact location, link with a computer built into the car containing a database of national roads, identify the applicable speed limit, and instruct a governor built into the vehicle to stop the fuel supply if the car exceeds a certain speed.GPS systems allow a receiver to determine its location by reference to satellites, but do not actually transmit the recipient’s location to anyone.154 The onboard computer could, however, permanently record everywhere the car goes, if sufficient storage were provided. The United Kingdom proposal also calls for making speed restrictions contextual, allowing traffic engineers to slow down traffic in school zones, after accidents, or during bad weather.155 This contextual control requires a means to load updates into the computer; indeed, unless the United Kingdom wished to freeze its speed limits for all time, some sort of update feature would be essential. Data integrity validation usually relies upon two-way communication. Once the speed control system and a central authority are communicating, the routine downloading of vehicle travel histories would become a real possibility. And even without two-way communication, satellite-control over a vehicle’s fuel supply would allow immobilizing vehicles for purposes other than traffic control. For example, cars could be stopped for riot control or if being chased by police, parents would have a new way of “grounding” children, and hackers would have a new target.

That a government can track a device designed to be visible by satellite does not, of course, necessarily mean that an individual without one could be tracked by satellite in the manner depicted by the film Enemy of the State. However, a one-meter resolution suggests that it should be possible to track a single vehicle if a satellite were able to provide sufficient images, and satellite technology is improving rapidly.

The public record does not disclose how accurate secret spy satellites might be, nor what parts of the spectrum they monitor other than visible light. The routine privacy consequences of secret satellites is limited, because governments tend to believe that using the results in anything less than extreme circumstances tends to disclose their capabilities. As the private sector catches up with governments, however, technologies developed for national security purposes will gradually become available for new uses.

I am afraid that I am not enjoying being proved right, not in the tiniest bit.


148. See SPIN-2 High Resolution Satellite Imagery .

149. The improved pictures will come from the Ikonos satellite. See Ikonos, Carterra Ortho Products Technical Specs .

150. See Joseph Rose, Satellite Offenders, WIRED, Jan. 13, 1999 .

151. See Gary Fields, Satellite “Big Brother” Eyes Parolees, Apr. 8, 1999, USA TODAY, at 10A.

152. See Satellites in the Driving Seat, BBC NEWS, Jan. 4, 2000 (reporting that half of the users in the test said they would be willing to adopt the system voluntarily).

153. See Jon Hibbs, Satellite Puts the Brake on Speeding Drivers, TELEGRAPH, Jan. 4, 2000 ; “Spy in the Sky” Targets Speeders, BBC NEWS, Jan. 4, 2000 .

154. See WATCHING ME, WATCHING YOU, supra note 61.

155. See Hibbs, supra note 153.

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4 Responses to US Spy Satellites Now Spying on Us

  1. NTEL says:

    Buying the border patrol a few more Cessnas would be more sensible — but that wouldn’t expand the turf of DHS, a new intelligence bureaucracy with an ill-defined mission. The Cessna option also wouldn’t be too good for the defense contractors that make and service extremely expensive spy satellites.

  2. Gary Farber says:

    Thanks. I’ve added a whole bunch more on technical capabilities to my original short post. Resolution was publically known back in the Nineties to be down to at least 5-6 inches, among other details. But it’s the 3-D combined imaging capabilities that are among the more interesting.

    You might also be interested in this on today’s 9th circuit hearing on the AT&T/NSA thing.

  3. SEO says:

    Yes it’s quite frightening, and your entry from 2000 is akin to things i’ve said to people back in the mid to late 90’s and virtually was branded a loony for contemplating such ideas of technological monitoring and capabilities…

    Yet now in the span of a decade, viewing the terrain via sattellite with surprisingly good resolution has even come to the home and public via Google Earth and Google Street view.

    A couple of years ago i “came across” leaked spy sattellite imagry of the World Trade Center location taken 48 hours after the incident, and the resolution and detail i must say blew my mind. Fast forward a few years, and i can only image what todays imagry looks like with the rapid advancements in technology.

    Another thing that concerns me is remote activation of Cell Phone Camera’s and Microphones, and if you think it’s not happening or can’t happen i urge you to think again.

  4. everett says:

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    [this comment disemvowelled pursuant to civility policy]

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