Eyes in the sky will soon see everything – even what happened in the past; is it too late to worry about privacy?

Posted on Jul 31, 2019 by Glyn Moody
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Earlier this year, Privacy News Online wrote about a new generation of nanosatellites that are starting to fill the sky. The same continuing advances in technology that have made these small but powerful systems possible are also operating at the other of the satellite spectrum. It means that traditional satellites now pack even more power into their larger volume, with important consequences for our privacy down on earth.

Currently, US federal regulations limit images taken by commercial satellites to a resolution of 25 centimeters. That’s already good enough to spot everyday objects. The next resolution frontier is likely to be 10 centimeters – about the size of your hand. It’s not just resolution that is improving. The time between updated images is diminishing, as an article in the MIT Technology Review explains:

Maxar, formerly DigitalGlobe, which launched the first commercial Earth observation satellite in 1997, is building a constellation that will be able to revisit spots 15 times a day. BlackSky Global promises to revisit most major cities up to 70 times a day. That might not be enough to track an individual’s every move, but it would show what times of day someone’s car is typically in the driveway, for instance.

Beyond rapid refresh rates lies the provision of real-time video images. Last year, a company called EarthNow announced that it planned to deploy a large constellation of advanced imaging satellites that would deliver real-time, continuous video of almost anywhere on Earth. The first round of financing included investments from Bill Gates and Airbus, which gives an idea of the seriousness of the venture. At the heart of the system lies massive on-board processing power. Each satellite is equipped with “more CPU cores than all other commercial satellites combined“.

Although the company says it will “initially serve high value enterprise and government customers in need of real-time Earth observation” – which would presumably include intelligence agencies and police – it is also aiming at the mass market. It promises “to serve millions of consumers, such as via an app on any device, allowing each user to see and interact with the Earth in real-time. Easy and intuitive access to EarthNow products and services is central to the user’s experience.”

If that plan is realized, it’s easy to imagine many ways in which real-time tracking of anyone, anywhere on the planet, could be abused. Obvious problems would include spying on employees, or on a spouse. Since satellite data is stored, it is even possible to create a virtual time machine to look back at what people were doing in the past. One company, DigitalGlobe, has satellite images going back to 2001. Moreover, visual images – whether still or moving – are just one possibility for detailed surveillance from the sky:

Some of the most radical developments in Earth observation involve not traditional photography but rather radar sensing and hyperspectral images, which capture electromagnetic wavelengths outside the visible spectrum. Clouds can hide the ground in visible light, but satellites can penetrate them using synthetic aperture radar, which emits a signal that bounces off the sensed object and back to the satellite. It can determine the height of an object down to a millimeter.

Against that background, proposed changes to how satellite licenses are granted in the US assumes a particular importance. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is concerned that privacy and civil liberties issues are not being considered. It offers a number of suggestions on how to address that problem. One is to require licensees to include more detailed information about their proposed system’s privacy risks, such as who the licensee is planning on sharing data with, and for what purposes. Another is for satellite operators to be obliged to log and record data requests from governments in order to provide transparency, and to report these to the public on at least an annual basis.

Even if the US government adopts these ideas, there are other problems. One obvious one is that it would only apply to the US – it wouldn’t stop other governments from carrying out extremely detailed surveillance of the planet without any regard for the privacy of the people affected. Another is that there are other ways of collecting this kind of data without using satellites – by flying drones with cameras, for example.

Less obvious, perhaps, is the use of conventional planes to carry out surveillance over a wide area. It’s something that the company Persistent Surveillance Systems has been exploring for years. The technology is low-tech: a fixed-wing plane circles for hours over a city or other location. Four to six industrial imaging cameras, synchronized and positioned at different angles, are attached to the bottom of a plane to provide a complete view of the area below. Once again, the constant flow of images allows operators to go back in time from an incident of interest. For example, they could track a person back to their home or office, or a vehicle to its point of departure.

Whether planes, drones or satellites, it’s clear that we are about to lose yet another aspect of our privacy – one that we never really knew we had. Call it “privacy from on high” – the fact that in the past, whatever threats we had at ground level, we could move through a landscape without worrying about who or what was looking at us from above. Increasingly, we will have to assume that there many eyes in the sky that can not only pick us out precisely, but which can rewind our lives back into the past, thanks to their huge, continuously-updated stores of previous images. New regulations in the US and elsewhere may blunt the effects of that loss, but there seems little hope of eradicating it completely.

Featured image by NASA.

About Glyn Moody

Glyn Moody is a freelance journalist who writes and speaks about privacy, surveillance, digital rights, open source, copyright, patents and general policy issues involving digital technology. He started covering the business use of the Internet in 1994, and wrote the first mainstream feature about Linux, which appeared in Wired in August 1997. His book, "Rebel Code," is the first and only detailed history of the rise of open source, while his subsequent work, "The Digital Code of Life," explores bioinformatics - the intersection of computing with genomics.

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  1. James P.

    I’m moving into a cave in Bolivia.

    12 months ago