High Resolution, Unresolved

Private companies will soon launch satellites powerful enough to spot environmental hazards--or a car in your driveway. Should we worry about snooping from space?

FOR more than thirty years spy satellites launched by the United States have been gathering a "virtual time-machine record of the earth," as Vice President Al Gore has described it. The public has paid close to $100 billion for that record. But national-security and personal-privacy concerns have blocked the use of the world's most powerful sensors to make current information about natural resources, environmental hazards, and private property in the United
techno picture States available to environmental scientists, government agencies, and businesses. Because the Central Intelligence Agency is barred by federal law from spying on Americans, it shares current environmental information about the United States only in rare instances--for example, in response to natural disasters.

Now, though, spy-satellite technology that has been used for a single purpose--espionage--with extraordinary government controls can suddenly be used for any purpose with few controls. In 1994, concerned about the post-Cold War health of the U.S. aerospace industry and fearful that foreign competition might challenge U.S. leadership in satellite technology, the Clinton Administration decided that private companies could launch satellites with high-resolution sensors previously available only to the intelligence community, and could provide information to anyone willing to pay for it. As government officials take cautious steps to share information gathered by military satellites, four U.S. companies are racing to launch satellites of their own equipped with similar technology. The first launch is scheduled for later this summer.

At a recent conference in Washington, D.C., Mark Brender, ABC's Pentagon producer, predicted that precise pictures from space will revolutionize television news, both by freeing reporters from relying on government-provided information during international crises and by freeing viewers from relying solely on what reporters tell them. David Bohrman, an executive producer at NBC, demonstrated how networks could use satellite pictures to simulate flyovers of troop encampments in Bosnia. At his command a technician in New York using prerecorded images zoomed in on villages, scanned rivers, and hovered over military bases, producing a moving picture that resembled a helicopter ride around the countryside.

WHAT is really at stake is the ground rules for the next phase of mapping the earth. By next year three of the four companies plan to produce images of one-meter resolution--100 times as precise as those of current civilian satellites. The ability to see hazy outlines of large buildings will be replaced with the ability to see the clear shapes of small cars. The ability to observe the same farm or city block every sixteen days will be replaced with the ability to observe the same point every two or three days; three to six images a day of most places in the United States are promised within four years.

Fundamental issues are being decided now. When should the government be allowed to censor images to protect national security? Should fears of military snooping from space be replaced with fears of snooping by corporations or domestic agencies? Will access to satellites' most detailed pictures pass from a small cadre of military clients with top-secret clearance to a small cadre of corporate clients with the means to pay for them?

Since commercial use of this technology is new, no one has a ready framework for resolving questions about national security, the protection of privacy, and public access to information. Time-tested principles that allow the government to block information in emergencies, keep homes and their surroundings free from intrusion, and treat geographic information as a national resource can provide guidance--if they are heeded. The breadth of the government's power to censor images may be decided this fall, when the Commerce Department is expected to issue final policies setting the conditions for commercial licenses to operate satellites. Privacy questions may be decided in an international context: strict privacy rules adopted by the European Union last July require consent for the use of information that identifies an individual. They may keep companies in the United States from selling images abroad unless similar rules are approved in this country. Access questions--whether images can be copied and distributed to the public, for example--will probably be negotiated between satellite companies and their customers, including government agencies.

NO longer simply the source of spectacular views of the earth, satellite images have a new capacity to influence what people do and how they think. Using sophisticated software and powerful, inexpensive computers, businesses, government agencies, citizens' groups, and individuals can now produce layered maps (called Geographic Information Systems, or GIS) that combine new environmental findings with information already available to the public, such as property ownership and census data. New satellites will make such maps more useful by providing high-resolution images with digital precision and offering predictable repeat visits. Neither aerial photography nor current civilian satellites like Landsat or the French SPOT can produce this combination.

The investigative powers of satellites derive not just from photography but from sensors measuring visible and invisible wavelengths of the sun's energy. These can reveal more about an object's character than can be discovered standing next to it: each species of plant, type of soil, and kind of rock or building material, for example, uniquely reflects and absorbs wavelengths. Experts add a few caveats: measures of reliability are critical; interpretation is complicated; and much of this science is still in its infancy. And like all maps, these reflect the quality of underlying information.

Information from sensors can give early warning of environmental hazards. Kass Green, the president of Pacific Meridian Resources, a mapping firm, expects that new images will help minimize the damage done by wildfires like those that sweep through urban areas such as Los Angeles and Oakland, California. For the first time, she says, it will be possible to easily distinguish asphalt, wood-shake, and synthetic-shake roofs and to assess from week to week the dryness of vegetation around homes. Planning firebreaks and other preventive measures depends on accurately predicting a fire's path.

Presented by

The Case for Napping at Work

Most Americans don't get enough sleep. More and more employers are trying to help address that.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

The Case for Napping at Work

Most Americans don't get enough sleep. More and more employers are trying to help address that.

Video

A Four-Dimensional Tour of Boston

In this groundbreaking video, time moves at multiple speeds within a single frame.

Video

Who Made Pop Music So Repetitive? You Did.

If pop music is too homogenous, that's because listeners want it that way.

Video

Playing An Actual Keyboard Cat

A music video transforms food, pets, and objects into extraordinary instruments.

Video

Stunning GoPro Footage of a Wildfire

In the field with America’s elite Native American firefighting crew

Video

The Man Who Built a Forest Larger Than Central Park

Since 1979, he has planted more than 1,300 acres of trees.
More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In