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Nowhere to Hide

From the Editor In Chief
March 1, 1999

What happens when technological change outruns society’s capacity to keep tabs on it? Well, in the case of spy-quality satellite imagery, we’re about to find out. Until just a couple of years ago, satellite images with a 1-meter resolution (you can distinguish objects 1 meter across in them)were the state of the art. They were largely in the hands of the intelligence agencies of the major powers, chiefly the United States and the former Soviet Union. But times have changed -with a vengeance. The breakup of the Soviet state and the end of the Cold War are about to loose a flood of these high-quality satellite images on the market, as Ivan Amato tells TR readers in this issue’s cover story: “God’s Eyes for Sale.”

The first of these images hit the World Wide Web last summer, where they were offered for as little as $10 a pop. That was just a first taste. In the coming year, as Amato’s fine reporting shows, half a dozen or more companies will launch their own satellites to provide consumers with the views once reserved for the spooks. These pictures will have plenty of legitimate uses. Real-estate agents can use them to show potential buyers new neighborhoods. Geologists working for oil companies will exploit them to identify “sweet spots “that harbor natural gas. Travelers can get a street-level view of Rome before arriving.

But there are plenty of potential users of this newly available information whose motives aren’t so nice. First of all, some of the world’s generals, from countries that can’t afford their own spy satellites, will get access to this kind of information for the first time. Is that a good thing? Maybe. Some experts say more knowledge generally helps stabilize tense international situations. Then again, it might not. And beyond these implications lie even queasier scenarios. What would North Korea do with information showing San Francisco airports in fine detail? What will Saddam Hussein do with building-by-building pictures of downtown Tel Aviv? Experts say combining readily available data from the Global Positioning System and the new high-resolution images would make targeting missiles easier than it would otherwise be. And how about terrorist groups? The idea of providing them with better targeting information doesn’t sit particularly well. Beyond the scare scenarios lie stubborn issues of privacy. What happens when almost anyone can look right down into your backyard, from high in the sky, without your knowing he’s doing that?

One problem with these questions is that nobody knows the answers. This is definitely one of those situations where the flow of information, pushed by a variety of motives, is expanding much faster than our collective wisdom. In the case of the former Soviet Union, the motivation was probably the need for hard currency. In the United States, the Clinton administration, leaning toward the interests of the private sector, has established relatively few controls on the sale of these once-secret images.

Given the current pace of technological change, there are plenty of areas where knowledge is outpacing wisdom. But there aren’t many where the stakes are quite as high as they are in the realm of spy-quality satellite data. It’s time the administration and Congress took a careful look at what is going to happen as spy’s-eye views enter the marketplace in abundance. This spring may be the last time they have a chance to do that before the deluge of images is upon us.

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