Satellite Surveillance by the Centimeter

Five centimeters.

That is the highest known resolution for spy satellites, though some believe current advanced government technology is accurate to a mere centimeter, close enough to read the screen of a person’s cell phone. Even at the five-centimeter range, many small details can be observed with a clear focus.

But before you panic about Big Brother, you should know that surveillance satellites must comply with strict governmental regulations. In North America, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) regulates U.S. satellites while Canada’s satellites are governed by the Remote Sensing Space Systems Act. In Europe, satellite imagery is subject to the EU’s General Data Protection laws. Moreover, the cost of invasively spying on the average person via satellites is prohibitively expensive (drones are a much cheaper and effective option for close surveillance). Therefore, it is unlikely to be used unless there is good cause.

Better than boots on the ground?

Though one may rightly worry about government oversite via satellite technology for nefarious aims, it is proving immensely useful to human rights groups to monitor and prevent government abuses. For example, high-definition satellite imagery revealed widespread destruction in ethnic Rohingya villages in Burma in 2016 that was even greater than what had been reported through interviews and on-the-ground photos and videos. This before-and-after visual documentation was invaluable in enabling the Human Rights Watch organization to pressure Burmese authorities to pursue a UN-assisted investigation.  Similarly, Amnesty International used satellite imagery to provide conclusive evidence of the razing of two towns by the terrorist group Boko Haram in 2015. The attacks left over 3,700 structures, including homes, schools, and medical clinics, damaged or destroyed. More recently, satellite imagery has been employed to uncover the extent of Chinese persecution of the Muslim Uighurs; 380 internment camps have been identified thus far, and the expansion of individual detention centers has been documented in real time.

Satellites as agricultural and environmental safeguards

Even the 50 cm resolution used by Google Earth is often sufficient to identify individual crops, and a 25 cm resolution, the best available publicly, can provide valuable information to law enforcement or regulatory agencies. This is hugely advantageous to effectively monitor and put a stop to criminal agricultural activity. For example, the so-called “Emerald Triangle” in California is America’s largest region of marijuana cultivation, much of which is located in mountainous, hard-to-reach areas. Thanks to satellite imagery, regulatory agencies in the state have been able to identify hundreds of unpermitted and illegal cannabis-cultivation operations, many of which were infringing on nationally protected land. In 2018, Brazilian police used real-time satellite imagery to spot areas where trees had been ripped out, tipping them off to an illegal charcoal scheme. Eight people were arrested. Satellite imagery can also be used to supplement the work of environmental defenders who strive to protect wildlife sanctuaries and prevent illegal logging; Amnesty International’s Crisis Evidence Lab has been using the technology to monitor areas where in-person patrols of environmentally sensitive areas have been evicted by local authorities. Governments are also leveraging these technologies on a large scale; last year the European Space Agency (ESA) doled out grant funding and technical support to companies committed to helping prevent environmental crimes and ensure compliance with environmental regulations.  

Like any technology, satellite imagery is a double-edged sword. While individual privacy remains a serious concern, remote sensing is being used to protect both humans and nature.

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