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Home / Tips and Tricks / Turns out that satellite surveillance only sounds like a major privacy issue

Turns out that satellite surveillance only sounds like a major privacy issue



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The ESA Aeolus satellite is used for earth observation. ESA

There are currently more than 5000 satellites orbiting the Earth, which also means that thousands of cameras take pictures in real time over you. Significant progress in satellite photography since the launch of Sputnik in 1

957 has some concerns about space surveillance. If you are concerned about privacy, that can be a disturbing thought. What can satellites actually see and how accurately? Where do these data go?

Satellite photography offers a unique vantage point for taking photos of the planet, on which scientists and others rely for finding patterns or viewing the world from a bird's eye view. But it also gives cause for concern at a time when personal privacy is being examined much more than ever before.

Privacy has become a flash point in the digital age, where companies admit to recording and storing data when they shouldn't, and data leaks from major banking institutions have revealed millions of credit card numbers, birth dates and addresses.

I spoke with cyber security experts to find out what you need to know about these real-time eyes in the sky – what you need to worry about and what you don't do. Most agreed that satellite misconceptions arouse the fear of a technical dystopia, but that in general the benefits of satellite photography outweigh the risks.

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The Genesis II model once had a close call or possibly collided with a dead Russian satellite.


Bigelow Aerospace

Not all satellites are the same

Satellites can take photos from space, but most of the thousands of eyes in the orbit of the sky are not worried about your home, experts say. For example, farmers rely on satellite images to grow crops and plan their harvests, and it helps city planners to map roads more efficiently, according to Charlie Loyd, an image specialist at online map maker Mapbox.

Satellite data also help organize travel and air mail, and environmental satellites document sea level rises, hurricanes and forest fires. Geologists can also map fault lines and predict volcanic eruptions with data from radar satellites.

The United Nations maintains a register dating from the 1960s, although many are no longer in orbit. These are the most important types:

  • Military satellites are mostly used for reconnaissance, defense and intelligence.
  • Commercial satellites are used for communication, entertainment, maps and more.
  • GPS satellites support navigation systems that are used daily and that are used by the US Air Force.
  • Scientific satellites are used for biological research programs, health care, climate studies, space research, evaluation of agricultural patterns, weather and more.
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    The Landsat 8 satellite captured this image from the campfire on November 8.


    NASA / Joshua Stevens with Landsat data from the US Geological Survey

Satellite photos are less accurate than you think

Satellite photos are not like a spy film where you can zoom in until you see freckles on a person's nose. In fact, photos are not very accurate these days, not like your phone's photography. Every pixel that you see, in a satellite image with a resolution of one meter, covers a square meter of ground, or about 3 feet.

As a rule of thumb, the lower an image resolution, the better the image quality. Click on the links below to view simulation satellite images with multiple resolutions of the same object:

  • 50 cm resolution: this is the most used resolution in Google Maps. The image is grainy.
  • 25 cm resolution: this is the best publicly available resolution for satellites. The image is slightly less grainy, but the details are still not visible.
  • 5 cm resolution: this is the resolution known within the boundaries of espionage satellites, according to technology expert Nooria Khan. The image becomes sharp. You can distinguish two men sitting at a bus stop, wet spots of melted snow, a garbage can and defined shadows on the sidewalk. 1 cm resolution: Experts believe that this resolution is being used by advanced government espionage satellites. You can see clothing details, cracks in the sidewalk and small pieces of waste on the floor.

Although the accuracy of satellite data can vary from satellite to satellite depending on the photographic capabilities, the vast majority of images are usually not good enough to compromise the privacy of the average person.

"I suspect that most people think of accuracy and satellites based on what they see in action adventure and spy movies," said John Gomez, CEO of cyber security company Sensato.

Satellites come with rules

Satellites are governed by a series of rules and regulations. A company that wants to launch a satellite must first get a license from the Federal Communications Commission and an approval from the International Telecommunications Union, and that takes time.

Add more time for surveillance satellites, which must also comply with the strict National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) regulations according to Ben Lamm, CEO of Hypergiant Industries, an AI company for products and services.

"If the satellite can see less than 0.3 meters, the satellite is considered illegal or only usable for the defense industry. Within this range, the satellite may be able to identify cars, certainly homes, but no individual people, "Lamm said.

Cambell pointed out that the limit of the NOAA image clarity regulations only applies to US satellites. Canada's satellites, for example, fall under the Remote Sensing Space Systems Act. In addition, Europe & # 39; s General Data Protection Regulation may apply to any imaging system that can identify EU citizens in person.

Lamm says that the applicable regulations and licensing requirements are strict enough to ensure that the privacy of the public is protected. In addition, all used imaging satellites are screened and tested to ensure privacy, he says.

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Drones raise a whole series of questions about privacy.


Stephen Shankland / CNET

Drones are likely to question you more often

Although satellites take photos, experts say that drones and helicopters can do that too – much cheaper, easier and more accurate. Drones that can track and identify faces are available on Amazon and at Best Buy, Gomez, said the cyber security CEO.

"Even if the person runs or hides behind an object or wall or car, the drone will wait for them. That's a $ 1500 drone," Gomez said. "Think about what you could do with a professional drone."

Drones are also easier to deploy for more nasty purposes, according to Gomez.

"They can stay on target for a very long time and you can arm them if you want to eliminate someone," he said.

For example, the ISS revolves around the Earth a few times a day and captures stunning pictures from space. It is classified as an artificial satellite, but you would not expect it to photograph your license plate. Last month (and much closer to the ground) an out of service Louisville Metro Police in Kentucky flew an "LMPD drone" outside the 800 Tower City Club Apartments downtown. The drone reportedly flew multiple floors of the 29 floors of the apartment and remained 5 to 10 feet from the balconies of the apartment.

Justin Sherman, a cyber security policy fellow at Think Tank New America, said the massive amounts of commercial satellites enable new levels of open-source intelligence gathering, known as OSINT. OSINT is data collected from publicly available sources for use in an intelligence context.

While satellites take photos, says Loyd, an image editing specialist, photos are only pixels. Potential privacy issues around satellites depend on the satellite you want to talk about, your expectations, and the misuse of other data streams.

Gomez said that instead of hacking a satellite to reveal your location patterns, it would be easier, for example, to hack your phone, your phone provider or the GPS system of your vehicle to find out where you are and where you are have been.

Khan said that government supervision has come under increasing public control. There is a thin line between acceptable and intrusive monitoring from above, she said. Jamie Cambell, the founder of GoBestVPN.com, said that satellites, like most technical issues, are advancing too quickly to be regulated by the government.

Experts agree that knowing what satellites can and cannot do is the key to stopping wrong information, but it is impossible to know everything. But experts and watchdogs follow technology quickly at breakneck speed.


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