Private Eyes

Forget the Government—You Could Be Big Brother

One corporation, EarthWatch (digitalglobe.com), whose high-res satellite, Quickbird I, will be launched before the year 2000, says at least one local law-enforcement agency has already contacted him about the technology. According to Chuck Herring, spokesman for EarthWatch, Utah police searching for fugitives called the company for help. But Herring says the new fleet of satellites can't be used to track people. "There is a 99 percent chance you won't see people on satellite imagery," he says. But Herring does maintain that once local law enforcement understands what the photos can show and what they will cost, a relationship could be on the horizon. Pot fields in the backyard, already under aerial-photograph scrutiny, are one obvious target—only, with the new spy cams, the intrusion will be virtually imperceptible to those targeted in the War on Drugs. At a time when the New York Civil Liberties Union has mapped the locations of 2397 surveillance cameras visible on Manhattan streets, the spy market seems about to explode.

Especially when spy pics are consolidated and integrated with other pertinent data. Core Software Technology's ImageNet (coresw.com), a service provider that allows users to access information from several sources, will do just that. In a single query, a user can zoom in on an area of the world, select geographic points and databases, and preview information and imagery before placing it all into a "shopping cart." High-res satellite photos will be supplemented with aerial photography, textual and land records, and a wealth of data that includes topography, culture, history, and demographics, explains Justin Holtzman, the firm's marketing coordinator. With the click of a button, college students will have fodder for killer multimedia presentations; your bookie could have easy access to your land holdings and your tax records. The company plans to launch its Eros satellite, which will supply the initial one-meter resolution photos for ImageNet, at the end of the year.

Early on in the next century, satellites armed with hyperspectral sensors and infrared capabilities are also poised to rocket off. Orbital Science's OrbView-4 will be able to detect the composition of objects on Earth—differentiating between metal and wood, for instance. While the company is only currently licensed to sell these photos at 24-meter resolution—far from spy quality—the satellite will enable the U.S. military (with which Orbital has an exclusive contract) to, say, recognize artillery hidden in the woods. In addition, Orbital has acquired the worldwide distribution rights for photos to be taken by Canada's RadarSat II, equipped with three-meter-resolution radar sensors. Since radar does not rely on optical sensors or sunlight, the newest breed of satellites can see through cloud cover and the darkness of night—a feature its predecessors can't brag about.

If trends continue, the proliferation of commercial high-res satellites will remain unchecked, and resolution can only improve as nations and corporations struggle to outdo one another. Will free access to images make the prospect of spy satellites less insidious? As Mark Brender sees it, the technology, free from the government's clutches, can finally "move from the black world of intelligence to the white world of commerce." That, of course, remains to be seen, one pixel at a time.

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