The Eye in the Sky is Watching You, Ever More Closely
Today marked a watershed moment in our privacy. A new commercial satellite was launched with four times better than before imaging capabilities, further reducing our privacy.
There was a time when getting privacy in our retreat was an easy and simple concept. Choose a location away from the main roads, and you knew that as long as the parts of your retreat that you wished to keep private were not visible from any other property or public land or vantage point, you could enjoy privacy.
Ah, for the good old days! The situation these days is enormously different, but perhaps you don’t realize just how different it has become.
Sure, we’ve known about ‘spy satellites’ in vague terms for a very long time. The U-2 and SR-71 spy planes are now matters of public record. But we’ve sort of assumed that these military/intelligence resources would not be deployed to snoop on what we were doing in our back yard, but would instead be solely focused on our actual and potential enemies.
For the last several decades, if you think about it, there has also been available commercial imagery and aerial mapping taken by planes that would be engaged to fly over an area and take ‘birds eye’ photos – such a harmless and appealing term. This type of resource was expensive and, as best most of us knew, little used for ‘general purposes’ (whatever those might be!). Our backyards were still reasonably private.
More recently, we’ve been treated to products such as Google Maps and Google Earth, and a number of other similar services, and we’ve noted with interest and excitement how we can see pictures of pretty much anywhere on the planet, typically taken sometime in the last five years or so, and of varying degrees of quality.
This has started to gently sound alarm bells, although the thought of having one’s retreat fuzzily photographed once is perhaps not a heart-stopping fear.
But have you kept track with the evolving capabilities not just of the Google products, but of all the other providers (and, even more alarming, perhaps, users) of aerial imagery?
For example, the chances are your county has a Geographic Database or Information System (GDS or GIS) that includes aerial mapping of the entire county. Sometimes these services are ‘in-house’ only, for county employees, sometimes they are publicly published on a website for anyone, anywhere to access.
Usually these services reveal no more data that you can already see on Google, but think about the implications of this. Many counties now have their tax assessors using the GIS and associated aerial mapping images to check the validity and completeness of their records of building structures and improvements. If you add a new structure to your lot, they’ll see it and may come knocking on your door, enquiring where the permits are for its construction, and adjusting your property valuation to reflect the new additions.
Indeed, if you even do something relatively minor, like adding on to your deck, they’ll see this too and that may also trigger a visit and inspection.
Of course, the ‘good news’ part of this was that the overhead imagery was only taken infrequently. If they take one picture every five years, that means there’s only one chance in 1826 that on any given day your property might be photographed. So if you are working on a project that you’d rather not share, and if it is a five-day project, at the end of which, your site will be returned back to looking pretty much the same as always, you have one chance in 365 of being photographed during the process. Those are reasonably favorable odds. And even if you were photographed, the reasonably fuzzy picture and the lack of any evidence subsequently could allow for various different interpretations as to what happened and why.
That is no longer the case. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, and first look at the two – increasingly three – types of aerial photography collection systems.
Note also that this article primarily focuses on visual – photographic imagery. There are many other types of overhead data collection such as infra-red, radar, and so on. Some weather sites offer examples of some of these other types of capabilities. There are also satellites that can analyze the type of vegetation in an area, satellites that can make educated guesses about what types of minerals might be underneath your ground, and satellites that can detect if the earth has been disturbed. So, ahem, if you were hoping to grow something that might otherwise embarrass you, or hoping to dig and bury something unnoticed, or if you’ve created some sort of underground structure, all of those things too might be detected by some of the other types of overhead monitoring satellites.
There are two main types of overhead photo imagery. The first is that which is collected by a satellite, and the second is that which is collected by a plane.
Spy satellites – more properly generally called ‘Earth Observation Satellites’ and indeed these days, being a mix of both military (spy) and commercial (public) satellites – are generally located somewhere from about 250 miles above the earth up to about 1,000 miles above the earth. Higher up satellites see more of the planet at any time, and stay in orbit longer (due to less friction from the outer fringes of our atmosphere). But lower down satellites see things more clearly, because they are closer to the ground and don’t have as much atmosphere obscuring and blurring their vision.
Spy satellites do not hover over one spot. Satellites need to be way high, at about 22,000 miles up, to ‘hover’ over a spot and that’s clearly too far away to be able to get clear photography.
Instead, they are all the time traveling in orbits around the planet, typically taking two hours or less to do a complete orbit, and because the earth is rotating beneath them, they see a different ‘slice’ of the planet each time they go around. By having multiple satellites in complementary orbits, it is possible to have most of the planet within view of a spy sat for much of every day.
Spy satellites have military value because they can ‘safely’ overfly anywhere on the planet to get imagery. We use quotes around the word ‘safely’ because in theory they are vulnerable to anti-satellite weapons, but to date and with only a very few rare exceptions, no country has deliberately shot down overhead satellites that pass overhead, and instead they seem to be allowed to overfly without interference.
Although satellite orbits can be changed, doing so uses up valuable fuel, and the useful life of a satellite is in large part limited by how long its onboard fuel lasts, so the military is reluctant to reposition satellites too often. This means that even only moderately sophisticated countries can track and anticipate when overhead satellites will be passing and plan their activities around such passes.
Indeed, with the wonders of the internet, you too can now tell when at least some of the spy satellites are overhead – there’s an iPhone app that will tell you. But note the two limitations of this app – first, it only includes officially acknowledged satellites. It does not report on any of the more secretive satellites, and neither does it alert you to the most detailed type of photo reconnaissance of all – that done by airplane. Second, although it tells you when a satellite is approaching, it can’t tell you if the cameras on board are actually pointing at you or not. The cameras on some satellites can be remotely controlled and pointed in specific areas, and also zoomed in or out.
How good a picture can a spy satellite take? The short answer is ‘more than good enough’, at least in terms of their ability to reasonably accurately capture the private details of what we’re doing in our own backyards.
A more detailed answer has to consider a number of factors. An obvious variable is the weather between the satellite and the ground. On a clear day with no haze, the satellite camera can capture a better image than if there is smoke, dust, smog, or natural effects such as clouds and rain.
Assuming a best case scenario, the resolution quality of spy satellite imagery is a closely guarded secret. Early satellites could only make out details greater than 40 feet in size. That would not pick up people or even cars, and struggled to pick up smaller sized houses. But a lot has progressed since then.
Rumors have long existed of satellites being able to read the number plate on a vehicle. We don’t know if this is true or not, but it seems reasonable to assume that the state of the art in spy satellite imagery is much better than the state of the art in commercial imagery, and it also seems reasonable to assume that whatever is public knowledge is a generation or two behind the current state of the art capabilities. One more reasonable assumption – technologies have improved from that which the military agreed to disclose in 1998 to what it is keeping secret today, 16 years later.
On the other hand, it isn’t always necessary for spy satellites to have an HDTV type resolution quality of the entire world and to not only read the registration plate on your car but also the writing on the document in your hand. For military purposes, it is usually sufficient to be able to identify equipment, understand their locations, and get reasonable estimates of manpower and other related functionalities. More tactical intelligence gathering however can be enormously enhanced if you can track specific vehicles (and more so again if you can track specific people).
So perhaps, after reaching a certain resolution sufficient for strategic imaging and analysis, the R&D effort backed off some. Furthermore, there are some ‘can’t be broken’ limits on the quality that can ever be obtained from a camera moving at 20,000+ mph, 200+ miles above you.
But if we had to make a wild guess, we’d guess that the best state of the art satellite imagery currently up there is probably capable of a 2″ – 2.5″ resolution, and maybe even better, particularly when enhanced with computer enhancing, averaging of multiple images, and the use of stereoscopic pictures. That’s probably enough for a satellite picture to tell if you have a 16″ or an 18″ barrel on your rifle, but not quite good enough to tell if it is all barrel, or part barrel and part silencer. They’ll be able to tell if the lady of the house, if sunbathing, has had a ‘Brazilian’ or not, and so on.
This type of resolution isn’t quite good enough to read your license plate, but it is very close and quite possibly a computer enhancement could recognize that certain types of blurs were more likely to represent some characters whereas other blurs might represent other characters.
Spy satellites do a lot more than ‘just’ take photos, but the photo imagery is the part of greatest interest to us.
Commercial satellites are now launching that mimic many of the capabilities of the spy satellites, and indeed the military has started buying imagery from commercial satellites in addition to its direct capabilities. Until June 2014, commercial satellites were not allowed to take ‘good’ quality images, but now they are allowed to take images with resolutions down to 10″. The previous 20″ limit has been a ridiculous restriction – the ‘other side’ almost certainly has imagery abilities comparable to our own, so the only people being restricted from access to good quality satellite imagery was ourselves – US civilians. Why restrict our access when potential enemies already has good access through their own resources?
The first of this new generation of high quality commercial imaging satellites launched today, successfully, from Vandenberg AFB in California.
Now for a key point. If the restriction is now set at 10″ (actually, 25 cm), then the very fact that there is a restriction limiting commercial providers from capturing better quality imagery clearly shows that there is a readily deployed technology to do so. How long will it be before the commercial providers get approval to start doing 5″ imagery, or maybe even still higher quality?
Of course, just as how the reference to spy satellites these days has to be widened to also encompass a growing number of commercial satellites, the same is true of ‘spy planes’. Commercial aerial photography has been around for a long time; the main distinction between it and spy plane based photography is that the latter tends to be done over territory where the plane shouldn’t be, and so is generally done higher and faster than is the case with civil/commercial planes and photography.
Commercial aerial photography can be done from as low as 1,000 ft or, (at least in the days of the SR-71), as high as probably about 100,000 ft (a comment at the bottom of this article claims 120,000 ft). The U-2 has a maximum altitude somewhere in excess of 70,000 ft. 100,000 ft is the same as 19 miles and 70,000 ft the same as 13 miles, so clearly spy planes, even when at maximum altitude, are much closer down to the ground than satellites, and so are capable of taking much more detailed pictures.
Because commercial flights are at the lowest altitudes, they can offer the best resolution of all, but only when overflying authorized areas. This makes them great for regular purposes but not so good for military reconnaissance.
However, from our perspective, any and every type of overhead imagery may reveal more details of what we have on our land than we would wish to be public knowledge. There’s no such thing as a better or worse type of aerial photography. It is all equally intrusive.
It seems you can’t open a newspaper these days without reading another story about someone and their drone. The original drones – the large-sized bomb toting remote piloted aircraft used by the military – are of course enormously expensive and require very specialized support resources.
We have seen the military transition from large-sized expensive drones to now having tiny ‘personal’ type drones which individual squads can deploy for immediate tactical information on the battlefield around them. You launch them by simply throwing them into the wind by hand. They are small, affordable, and easy to operate.
The same is true of civilian drone technology. These days you can buy a ‘drone’ yourself, typically a multi-element helicopter type unit with maybe four, six or eight sets of rotating helicopter blades. These units come complete with a high quality gimbal/gyro-stabilized HD video camera and realtime video downlink, are priced at about $1000 – and some models are available for half that price. They are usually battery-powered and have an operating range, standard, of about half a mile or so.
Their operating ability is limited by their battery life and the radio reception between them and the control unit. If you boosted the remote controller and the onboard receiver’s radios, you could increase the distance they’d operate from you and the controller substantially, but their ‘loiter time’ – the total time they can be aloft on a single charge – seems to presently be limited to about 20 – 30 minutes.
These wonderfully low-cost and very sophisticated devices can take high quality high-resolution aerial photograph pretty much anywhere you wish. They can be used for ongoing surveillance and aerial mapping type projects, and can also be used, the same as the new small military drones, for tactical intelligence when confronting an opposing force.
You not only have to be aware of the potential presence of drones in your skies, you should also consider buying one (or several) for your own present and future use. They can help you manage your crops, they can help you see into forests to understand their tree cover and density, and in the future, if you find yourself challenged by unwanted visitors, they can help you safely scout out their location and numbers and capabilities.
While there is a morass of legal issues surrounding drone use, that doesn’t seem to be slowing down anyone from rushing to buy and use these devices.
The Evolving Capabilities of Google and its Competitors
Google keeps getting ‘better’ in terms of the vast store of information it compiles, collates, and publishes. The first version of its Maps and Earth products had limited and low resolution aerial imagery. But now, the imagery has become much better quality, can be manipulated (for example, you can look at objects from four different angles), is updated more regularly, and you can even see a historical time series of data.
The historical data series can be very revelatory. Rather than just seeing a single image, you see a time series of images which helps you understand if an area is being increasingly developed, or increasingly abandoned, and you can spot the shifts of things from one image to the next. Sometimes simply seeing no change is also a significant data point.
This historical time series is about to become extraordinarily more detailed. Google has bought a satellite company (Skybox Imaging) and intends to launch 24 of its own satellites, which between them all will be able to photograph everywhere on earth, three times every day.
The satellites also have video capabilities as well as capturing traditional still images.
That’s not to say that just because the satellites could take three pictures of your property every day, that it will be done, and that’s not to say that historical timelines will now have up to 1000 images per year. But you can be sure that pretty much the entire US will be re-photographed several times each year, and the entire country will now be captured in best quality resolution rather than selectively in standard or low resolution as has been the case at present. It sort of makes sense to have summer and winter pictures, and maybe spring and fall too.
So, within a few years, anyone will be able to see highly detailed time series of pictures of practically anywhere on the planet. That will not only allow them to see the changes to your property, but it will also enable them to see how much cropping you are doing, how many animals you have in your pastures, and even how much washing you are hanging on the line to dry. It will be obvious if a place is occupied or not, and possible to make some reasonable guesses as to how many people are living there.
These days it is necessary to accept that we have no privacy. Sure, we might be obscured from the nearest road and neighbor, but aerial photography will reveal pretty much everything about our land and retreat that can be seen from the sky.
Opsec? We never thought it was possible to start with (for example, see our article written back in May 2012, before the latest profusion of satellite technologies, ‘Is it realistic to expect your retreat will not be found‘). Nowadays, hoping to conceal your retreat is impossible.
You need to plan your future based on the expectation that everyone who you’d wish not know anything about you will sadly know everything about you.