New Satellites Will Detect Your Face and Phone from Space

October 15, 2015 | Kelly Tatera

Satellite imagery of Kalutara Beach after a tsunami
Photo credit: Irish Typepad/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

If you thought the aerial imaging on Google Earth was creepy, you’re in for a rude awakening.

Satellite technology has taken a creepy turn, with high-resolution images becoming so clear that they will soon be able to zoom in on your face and smartphone from outer space. The rapid advancement of the technology has refined the measurements of satellite image resolution from meters to mere centimeters. While these developments will potentially enable governments to better track down criminals and monitor suspicious behaviors, they could also bring a new era of privacy concerns.

Just last year, the US relaxed regulations on the commercial images that satellite companies can distribute, reducing the previous 50-centimeter resolution restriction by half. The new 25-centimeter restriction allows for an image that’s nearly four times clearer than before — precise enough to see a mailbox.

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Now, DigitalGlobe, a leading global provider of commercial satellite images, is pushing for the restrictions to be lowered again, to just 10 centimeters this time. For reference, the BBC reports that the newest US spy satellites can make out objects less than 10 centimeters across — less than the length of someone’s smartphone. Enabling this kind of technology to be used at a commercial level is certainly somewhat worrisome.

Tech Insider reports that big dog companies like Google and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which used satellite imagery to track down al-Qaeda's notorious founder Osama Bin Laden, are regular customers at DigitalGlobe.

DigitalGlobe’s WorldView-2 and WorldView-3 satellites are the most powerful in the world — so powerful that the government prevents their images from being released to the public. Slate published an article with some of the most stunning images taken by the satellites, but the resolution levels had to be reduced in order to be legally published.

However, if the 10-centimeter resolution laws get approved, DigitalGlobe will be able to sell commercial high-resolution images to any companies willing to pay, meaning your smartphones, license plate numbers, and faces could soon have a price.

Hopefully the ethics behind satellite image distribution will be smoothed out before the high-resolution restrictions fall any lower. If high-res images fall into the hands of the wrong people, the world will face an ever-growing inventory of privacy and security concerns.
However, the clear satellite images could also benefit the world in a number of other areas of concern. Lockheed Martin, an American aerospace, defense, security, and advanced technologies company, posted a video about the launch of DigitalGlobe’s WorldView-3. According to Lockheed Martin, the satellite will be capable of collecting up to 680,000 square kilometers of imagery per day. This detailed data could lead to the discovery of new sources of minerals and fuels, and help manage forests and farms.

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