Giant cameras in the sky New surveillance satellites threaten

“Giant cameras in the sky : New surveillance satellites threaten privacy around the world News

For decades, privacy experts have been cautious about technologies designed to spy on Earth from space. They feared that powerful satellites could get so close to individuals that they would take closeup photos that would distinguish adults from children, or distinguish modestly dressed sunbathers from those enjoying nature walks.

Now, analysts say, a startup is suddenly building a new class of satellites whose cameras can do just that for the first time. “We are very aware of the impact this has on privacy,” Topher Haddad, head of Albedo Space, the company that makes the new satellites, said in an interview, adding that the technology his company uses developed, will capture images of people but will not be able to identify them, and that Albedo is still taking administrative steps to adequately address privacy concerns.

Anyone living in the modern world is familiar with the decline in privacy due to the rise of security cameras, trackers built into smartphones, facial recognition systems, drones and other forms of digital surveillance. But experts point out that the surveillance watching us from above is potentially frightening because it can reach into areas previously considered fundamentally taboo.

“It’s a huge camera sitting in the sky. Any government could use them at any time without our knowledge. We should definitely be concerned about that,” said Jennifer Lynch, general counsel of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who in 2019 urged civilian satellite regulators to address this issue.

On the other hand, Haddad and proponents of albedo technology say the real benefits need to be taken into account, especially when it comes to combating disasters and saving lives. “You can see which house is burning and where people are fleeing,” commented D. James Baker, former head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which licenses civilian imaging satellites in the United States.

Albedo Space is based in the Denver, Colorado area, employs 50 people and has raised approximately $100 million. The company plans to launch its first satellite in early 2025, Haddad confirmed, aiming to operate with a fleet of 24 spacecraft.

Albedo's investors include Breakthrough Energy Ventures, Bill Gates' investment company. The strategic advisory board includes former directors of the CIA and the National GeospatialIntelligence Agency, a branch of the Pentagon. The company's website does not mention any images of people or privacy issues. Still, intelligence experts stress that those responsible for regulating the sector should wake up before the satellites take their first closeup photos.

For Linda Zall a longtime former CIA employee who was involved in some of the country's most powerful spy satellites “we're dealing with a big deal.” She predicted that the equipment will reach homes and people will realize that the things they hide in the backyard can now be observed very clearly. “Privacy is a serious issue,” she said.

“We are approaching a Big Brothertype world. We are being watched,” said Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at Harvard University who publishes a monthly report on civilian and military space developments.

Spacecraft in orbit have been scanning the planet for a long time. The potential of artificial satellites to monitor civilian life was confirmed during the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Moscow denied serious problems, but a nonmilitary U.S. satellite took a photo on April 29, 1986, showing the reactor core had ruptured in a fiery rift, sending deadly radioactive debris into the atmosphere. The North American media published the picture.

Confirmation of the disaster opened up a new field, satellite journalism, and stoked fears almost immediately of the possibility of espionage from space. “Image quality is expected to improve rapidly,” warned the Privacy Journal, a monthly newsletter published in Washington shortly after the Russian nuclear disaster. The newspaper also reported that television news directors and producers were seeking unrestricted access to space images. Ultimately, they wanted to monitor everything from troop movements to a movie star's backyard hot tub.

The visual performance of a space camera is generally expressed as the distance (in meters) of the smallest object it can display. The value of the first cameras was defined in meters. Now it's in centimeters. According to experts, this improvement makes new images 100 times more detailed and insightful. The satellite that photographed Chernobyl in 1986 was known as Landsat. NASA built it to monitor crops, forests and other resources on site. This vehicle's camera could detect terrestrial objects up to 30 meters away. The Chernobyl complex was almost a kilometer long. Analysts were able to easily identify the exploding reactor.

Today, the most powerful civilian imaging satellites can distinguish objects on the ground up to 30 centimeters in diameter. Using the images, analysts can distinguish traffic signs and even the numbers printed on the tails of airplanes.

Albedo wants to take a leap forward by capturing images of objects up to ten centimeters in size. This became possible when the Trump administration took steps in 2018 to relax regulations on civilian satellite resolution. “Soon satellites will be able to watch you anytime, anywhere,” warned Technology Review, a journal of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in 2019.

Haddad said that the inspiration for Albedo's clear goals was a post by President Donald Trump on his Twitter account (currently X) in 2019. He released a spy image obtained from the United States that showed a severely damaged launch pad in Iran. The image's resolution was estimated at about four centimeters, sparking widespread discussion about the commercial possibilities of the satellites.

Haddad grew up in Houston and studied engineering at Johns Hopkins University and the University of Texas. He worked for Lockheed Martin in Sunnyvale, California, a company that has long built spy satellites. Some of them can actually rival or exceed the size of a school bus and typically cost billions of dollars.

Haddad's partners are Winston Tri, a former software engineer at Facebook, and AyJay Lasater, a former satellite engineer at Lockheed Martin. They foresaw the emergence of a commercial market for satellite imagery accurate to within ten centimeters, provided the cost was not astronomical. The solution they found was to place spacecraft in very low orbits that were comparatively close to their terrestrial objects. This allowed the satellite fleet to use smaller cameras and telescopes, reducing costs.

In the 1980s, Landsat was in orbit at an altitude of more than 400 miles (640 km) when it took images of Chernobyl. Therefore, Albedo's founders planned low orbits with an altitude of 160 kilometers. However, at these low altitudes, spacecraft cut through the planet's thin outer atmosphere, reducing its speed and shortening its life in orbit. Albedo's rovers, barely larger than a household refrigerator, will use booster jets to counteract air resistance.

In December 2021, Albedo received regulatory approval to launch an imaging satellite with a resolution of ten centimeters. The new technology quickly caught the attention of the country's military and intelligence agencies. In 2022, the company signed a $1.25 million contract with the Air Force. The goal was to test whether the device responded well to a standard rating scale that measures the ability with which an image can be interpreted. The tests included identifying material carried in electronics carriers, fighter jet fairings and missile tubes on warships.

In April 2023, the company secured another $1.25 million contract this time with the National Air and Space Intelligence Center, which assesses foreign threats. Late last year, it also signed a contract to have its technology evaluated by the National Reconnaissance Office, which manages the country's spy satellites. Albedo's website says the images could help governments “monitor hotspots, address uncertainty and mobilize quickly.” In listing its core values, the company states that, among other activities, it supports “datadriven investigative journalism” that “ensures we live in a better world.”

Albedo cofounder Winston Tri praised the fleet's observability capabilities Space cameras can detect vehicle details such as sunroofs, racing stripes and items transported in an open truck. “In some cases, we can even identify private vehicles, something that wasn't possible before.” The company believes its civilian customer base includes urban planners looking for potholes in streets and paths, conservation groups tracking wildlife, insurance companies looking for roof damage monitor, and power line companies that want to prevent wildfires.

Legal experts point out that drones are already heavily regulated by federal, state and local laws, making them the subject of intrusion and privacy complaints. Nofly zones include not only airports, military bases and sporting events, but also individuals. California law prohibits drone operators from photographing people engaged in private, personal or family activities unless they have permission.

Lynch of the Electronic Frontier Foundation is discouraged. She has been involved in satellite law regulators for half a decade. He believes little is being done to demand privacy protections from the eyes of the air and that Albedo and his supporters are “operating with blinders to the impact on human rights.”

w. 2024 The New York Times Company

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