News & Politics

Private Eyes


As the new millennium dawns, the omniscient eye fixes its gaze towards Earth. The eye, as in Foucault’s treatment of the Panopticon, holds power over us: watched without seeing our watcher, we internalize rules, assuming our actions will constantly be seen. But is anyone watching the watcher?

Last month, Space Imaging (, a Denver-based, privately held “information company,” attempted a launch of its spy satellite, Ikonos I, from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base. Heralded as the first commercial high-resolution imaging satellite to be hurled into space, Ikonos I never completed its journey. Athena II, its launch vehicle, was blamed. The satellite—built in part by Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, and Kodak—plummeted somewhere into the South Pacific. Space Imaging plans to send off Ikonos I’s twin, Ikonos II, by the end of the year. And with 12 companies licensed by the Department of Commerce to launch the new breed of spy cams, it’s only a matter of time before these private eyes proliferate in the sky.

The burgeoning billion-dollar spy-cam industry’s current market is split 50-50 between governments and numerous commercial industries such as real estate, urban planning, and natural-resource exploration. A major hotel chain wants 3-D satellite imagery of all the best beaches in Cuba; scientists need photos of the rain forest to calculate its diminishing size. Yet no one knows for sure what untapped markets will emerge. New users mean more profits, and companies are banking on this. Anyone with “anything that needs to be mapped, measured, or monitored can use this new technology,” explains Mark Brender, Washington operations director for Space Imaging.

The product of the satellites, high-
resolution photos of Earth, are relatively inexpensive and will be available to any person wishing to purchase them on Internet sites at the starting price of about $30 per square mile. Once the satellites are up, up, and away and functioning, Web surfers will be able to plug in geographic coordinates, or even a street address, and obtain pics. The order can also be customized to match requested dates and times of day; sites will quickly confirm satellite availability.

No domain is technically free from the prying eyes of the commercial satellites. Individuals can’t request that companies shut their cameras off when flying high above their property, explains Barry Beneski, spokesman for Orbital Sciences (, a corporation that plans to launch its own high-res satellite, OrbView-3, before the year is out. Restrictions, or “shutter control,” can only be imposed by Uncle Sam—in times of national crisis, for instance. “Companies and nations have the ability to use space unrestricted,” reasons Beneski. “We’re not spying in people’s backyards.”

The resolution of the new satellite images, about 0.82 meters, is rivaled only by top-secret military satellites. The number refers to the area that is contained in one pixel. The first military reconaissance imaging satellite was launched by the U.S. in 1960 and was in use until 1971; those images had a resolution of two meters. Current military spy images are said to be far more detailed than their commercial counterparts. Legend has it that license plates are visible, which might imply that faces could also pop up. While the commercial satellites can’t identify humans—the average standing person (from a bird’s eye view) would not even be represented by a pixel—they can see vehicles and buildings, and can distinguish between a car and a truck. And there is no law that limits their optical power, causing critics to cite a slippery slope: eventually, the cameras might be able to see not only your face, but the pamphlets you are handing out on the streets.

PDD-23, the classified presidential directive signed by Bill Clinton in 1994, ultimately gave the green light for companies to take their information gathering up into space. Slated to expand jobs, economic growth, and competition in the international market for “remote sensing,” PDD-23 does not set resolution limits for U.S. commercial spy satellites. Rather, the directive “ties [the satellites’] performance capabilities and imagery characteristics to those already available or planned in the world marketplace,” explains John Baker, senior research scientist at George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute. In other words, when two-meter resolution photos from a Russian satellite began circulating around Washington some five years ago, it was a safe bet that U.S. companies would raise the resolution ante, foreshadowing an arms race for the information age.

“The most significant issue right now is that there are no limitations on what kind of information can be collected and how it can be used,” says Barry Steinhardt, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union. That means no warrant requirements for law enforcement, and no judicial intervention before the fact. “As a rule of thumb, one ought not to be able to collect personally identifiable information without the consent of the individual.”

And while the European Union has already adopted such measures in its data-protection directive, the U.S. has yet to see such legislation pass. “Information is very much an equalizer,” says Beneski. The idea is that with unrestricted access to spy technology, a level playing field emerges. Maybe your soon-to-be ex can find out how big your assets really are for that upcoming divorce settlement, but, hey, you’ve got an opportunity to finally nab that lousy corporation that’s said to be dumping toxic waste in the nearby river. “The potential good uses overwhelmingly outweigh any concerns people might have,” Beneski says.

One corporation, EarthWatch (, 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 (, 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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