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EPIC --- Privacy and Human Rights Report 2006

Title Page Previous Next Contents | Privacy Topics >Satellite Surveillance

Satellite Surveillance

Developments in satellite surveillance (also called "remote sensing") during the last decade have embraced features similar to those of more conventional visual surveillance. Satellite resolution has constantly improved since the end of the Cold War, largely due to efforts by companies such as EarthWatch, Motorola and Boeing. These companies have invested billions of dollars to create satellites capable of mapping even the most minute detail on the face of the earth.

The use of commercial satellite imagery by governments has increased substantially in recent years. Images obtained through commercial satellites were key in aiding US military forces carrying out Operation Iraqi Freedom.[478] The US Commercial Remote Sensing Space Policy, signed in 2003, ordered all federal government agencies to utilize commercial satellite imagery and encouraged development of a strong US remote sensing industry.[479] Space Imaging (now part of Geo-Eye) and DigitalGlobe are the two major players in the commercial satellite industry, collecting thousands of square kilometers of imagery each day. Both companies are the recipients of substantial contracts with the US government for images from their satellites.

Space Imaging was the first to launch one of the new generation high-resolution satellites, the IKONOS, in September 1999. ORBIMAGE acquired Space Imaging in 2006 to form GeoEye, the world's largest commercial remote sensing company.[480] Its parabolic lens can recognize objects as small as one meter (3.28 feet) anywhere on earth and, according to the company, viewers can see individual trees, automobiles, road networks, and houses. Collecting data at a rate of over 2,000 square kilometers (772 square miles) per minute, the volume of imagery provided by this satellite is staggering. Considered the grandfather of commercial satellites, IKONOS is used by a number of industries in addition to government.[481] Public interest groups are also using the information to show images of nuclear testing by countries and even images of secret United States bases such as Area 51 in Nevada.[482] GeoEye’s latest prototype, the GeoEye-1, is due to be launched at the end of 2007.[483] Tauted as the world’s highest resolution commercial Earth-imaging satellite, the GeoEye-1 GeoEye-1 will be able to precisely locate an object to within 3 meters of its true location on the surface of the Earth, and is able to recognize objects as small as .41 meters. The satellite will be able to collect up to 700,000 square kilometers of imagery per day. GeoEye-1 will be able to revisit any point on Earth once every three days or sooner.[484]

In 2001, DigitalGlobe launched the satellite QuickBird, which provides images as small as two feet (0.61 meters). DigitalGlobe is currently working on improving resolution and collection capacity with their next-generation WorldView 1 satellite, scheduled to launch in mid-2007, and its WorldView 2 satellite, anticipated to launch in late 2008.[485]

While governments are increasingly relying on commercial satellite technology, private companies are raising public awareness by providing access to images through the Internet. Upon acquisition of the satellite image firm, Keyhole, in October 2004, Google Inc. combined satellite imagery, maps and its popular search engine to create Google Earth.[486] Google Earth is a free download that allows users to view a map in satellite form by simply entering an address or executing a search. The service is still in the early stages, and the level of resolution varies from distant aerial photographs to street level, depending on the area. For an additional fee, the company offers two upgraded versions of Google Earth, incorporating Global Positioning System (GPS) technology and data import capability for more advanced application. The satellite option was initially offered through Google’s Internet mapping service, Google Maps, but in a more limited form. Other companies, such as Microsoft, also offer satellite imagery through various Web sites.[487] On May 25, 2007, Google released Street View, a new feature of Google Maps that provides 360 degree panoramic street-level views of New York City, San Francisco, Miami, Denver, Las Vegas, Orlando, San Diego, Los Angeles, Houston, and their surrounding metropolitan areas. The service has raised some privacy objections as Street View displays detailed images of home interiors as well as images of shelters and clinics.

Integration of existing satellite images with ground-based Geographic Information System (GIS) databases have produced interactive maps available for widespread use. GIS technology allows users to link detailed data on human activity to mapping software. Information ranging from census data to crime statistics may be incorporated into these maps.[488] Because there is no limit to the types of information that can be linked to satellite imagery, the implications of this technology are far-reaching. Were personal information integrated into such a map, simply double-clicking on a satellite image of an urban area could reveal precise details about the occupants of a particular house. The "Open Skies"[489] policy accepted worldwide means that there are few restrictions of the use of the technology.[490]

Despite these advances, private companies have a distance to go before they catch up with governments. Experts estimate that the current generation of secret spy satellites, such as the Ikon/Keyhole-12, can recognize objects as small as ten centimeters (approximately four inches) across and some analysts say that it can image a license plate.[491] The airplane manufacturer Boeing is currently fulfilling a 10-year contract with the United States government for a Future Imagery Architecture (FIA) to replace the KH satellites and the ground infrastructure.[492] The FIA is based on a constellation of new satellites that are smaller, less expensive, and placed in orbit to allow for real-time surveillance of battlefields and other targets.

Government use of satellites is extensive, ranging from homeland security operations to agricultural analysis. For example, the United Nations (UN) Office on Drugs and Crime uses IKONOS imagery to assess the illegal drug trade in Afghanistan, Laos, Myanmar, and Bolivia.[493] By analyzing satellite images, the UN is able to assess the level of production of illicit crops such as heroin and cocaine, and estimate the portion of the drug trade attributable to these nations.

Following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, the US National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA) began focusing its observation internally rather than abroad. Prior to the attacks, domestic US satellite surveillance most often involved natural disaster relief. Although laws limit the use of intelligence resources to issues of national security, the NGA admits to the existence of gray areas in which aiding the FBI in criminal investigations is common practice.[494] In 2004, the NGA signed a sharing agreement with the National Security Administration that allows "horizontal integration" between the two agencies, defined as "working together from start to finish, using NGA's 'eyes' and NSA 'ears’.” Using a combination of wiretap surveillance and satellite imagery obtained from unmanned aerial vehicles, intelligence analysts have tracked suspected terrorists or insurgents in Iraq in real time.[495]

GPS Developments

Development of the European satellite system, Galileo,[496] will likely enhance surveillance technology. The first satellite launched at the end of 2005, and the system should be fully operational by 2010.[497] Galileo will be fully interoperable with GPS and, when used in conjunction, will offer much greater reliability and an expected accuracy of close to one meter.

Use of GPS is becoming increasingly common, as the technology finds its way into consumer wireless devices such as cellular phones, personal data assistants, and car navigation systems.[498] Although GPS provides convenient navigational assistance, the ability for others to track users raises serious concerns.[499] A number of relatively inexpensive devices, advertising the ability to covertly monitor the movements of individuals, are currently on the market.

Employer use of GPS to monitor their workforce is also on the rise.[500] The number of trackers installed on fleet vehicles in the US is expected to exceed 1.3 million by 2005.[501] Some companies require employees to carry GPS-enabled cell phones to allow for tracking on the job.[502] Employers cite legitimate purposes for such monitoring but the lack of clear standards governing this practice leaves the potential for abuse wide open.

New York taxi drivers have promised to go on strike in September 2007 unless the city halts plans to install GPS technology in the city’s 13,000 cabs by early 2008.[503] Members of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, which represents about 8,400 drivers, are worried that their bosses will track their whereabouts even when they are off-duty.[504] Australian company Telstra could face a police investigation following a report that claims that workers were monitored illegally by surveillance devices in their vehicles. It is a criminal act in Victoria to install tracking devices in vehicles without permission from the workers.[505]

[478] Patrick Clarke, "Commercial Satellite Imagery Matures as an Asset," Military Geospatial Technology, April 23, 2004, Vol. 1, Issue 1 <>.
[479] See "Fact Sheet: US Commercial Remote Sensing Space Policy," May 13, 2003 <>.

[480] <>.
[481] Id.
[482] See, e.g, Federation of American Scientists, Dimona Photographic Interpretation Report <>.
[483] GeoEye Imagery Products <>.
[484] Id.

[485] Digital Globe press room <>.

[486] See <>.
[487] See generally <> and <>.

[488] See generally <>. For example, a Web site provides access to a database of crimes in the area of the city of Chicago in the United States, allowing users to search by type of crime or geographic area to obtain a record of offenses during a given period. See <>.
[489] The Open Skies Treaty allows one signatory country to fly over another for the purpose of collecting imagery. 31 countries currently participate in the treaty. See generally <>.
[490] See Federation of American Scientists, Open Skies Treaty Guide, available at <>.

[491] "Spy Satellites: the Next Leap Forward," International Defense Review, January 1, 1997.
[492] "Boeing to Build New United States Satellites," Jane's Defense Weekly, September 15, 1999.

[493] See "The Satellite Wars" <>.

[494] Associated Press, "Spy Imagery Agency Watching Inside US," September 26, 2004, available at <>.
[495] Tim Shorrock, “America under surveillance,”, August 9, 2007 <>.

[496] Galileo is largely an attempt to decrease dependence on the US system. The system is civilian-controlled and therefore, unlike GPS, may not be shut down for military purposes.
[497] "Europe Launches Galileo Satellite," BBC News, December 28, 2005 <>.

[498] See generally Wikipedia, "Global Positioning System" <> (last modified July 18, 2005).
[499] See Richard C. Balough, "Global Positioning System and The Internet: A Combination with Privacy Risks," CBA Record (Chicago Bar Association), October 2001 <>.

[500] See Diane Cadrain, "GPS on Rise; Workers’ Complaints May Follow," HR Magazine, April 2005 <>.
[501] Charles Forelle, "GPS Units Keep Tabs on Employee Loafing,", June 3, 2004 <>.
[502] Id.

[503] The New York Taxi Workers Alliance, <>.
[504] “New York Cabbies May Go On Strike Over GPS Plan,” ComputerWorld, August 6, 2007, available at <>.
[505] “Telstra Could Face Police Investigation,” Sydney Morning Herald, July 30, 2007, available at <>.

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