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Sky Spy

[whitespace] eye spy

The Cold War practice of satellite surveillance has moved into the private sector. Now, for a few hundred dollars, anyone may soon be able practice armchair espionage, spying on objects as small as 3 meters in diameter anywhere on the earth.

By Michael Learmonth

ON A FRIGID, blue-sky December afternoon in Siberia, a Cold War-vintage SS-25 missile rode from hangar to launch pad atop a green tractor along a snow-covered road.A direct descendent of the nuclear-tipped ICBMs that once paraded through Red Square, the SS-25 has become a workhorse of the burgeoning Russian commercial space industry. With a coat of orange paint and the Russian Federation's tricolor flag, the doomsday warrior has metamorphosed from a missile capable of killing millions into a launch vehicle responsible for cradling delicate high-tech cargo and gently lofting it into space.

As the three-stage rocket was raised to launch position, it cast a long shadow across the Svobodny Cosmodrome. A hundred or so engineers and scientists at an American startup company called EarthWatch Inc. watched with bated breath. Their baby, a $120 million spy satellite, was aboard.

The satellite was built at a lab in Pleasanton, Calif., by a team led by Walter Scott, who directed the "Star Wars" Strategic Defense Initiative at Lawrence Livermore National Labs. The satellite, dubbed "Earlybird I," would be the world's first privately owned spy satellite.

Earlybird I blasted off on Christmas Eve and soon reached a stable orbit 290 miles above the earth. Soon, Earlybird I was to be joined by a sister satellite, then by two other EarthWatch satellites dubbed Quickbird I and II. The four would begin relaying images back to EarthWatch headquarters in Longmont, Colo., making them available to anyone with a credit card and an Internet account.

For $750, less than the cost of a photograph taken from an airplane, the curious could conduct armchair espionage, "tasking" the satellite to photograph a village in Sumatra, nuclear reactors in Israel or the backyard barbie of their favorite celebrity. The photos look like the view from a window seat on a clear-day approach to San Jose International.

"With Earlybird I, the people of the world will soon have easy and inexpensive access to the most refined representation of our planet ever assembled," EarthWatch CEO Donovan Hicks crowed in a press release issued on the day of the launch.

Lost in Space

BUT THE EUPHORIA at ground control this winter was short-lived. Fifteen minutes after launch, an EarthWatch ground station in Tromso, Norway, received a downlink signal confirming that the satellite had successfully separated from the launch vehicle and was automatically initializing onboard processors. But if Earlybird could speak, it might have said, "Longmont, we have a problem." Four days after the launch, Earlybird I lost power and has been silent ever since.

Since then, EarthWatch has dismissed a third of its staff, including Douglas Gerull, the executive vice president of product operations. EarthWatch's remaining engineers have converged at the communications center in Longmont and at the lab in Pleasanton, a one-story office park across 680 from a gated housing development. They are hunkered over a "test bed" of identical components on the sister satellite, Earlybird II.

Though no one knows why Earlybird I went mum, outside experts theorize that when the satellite was bringing up the various systems, it put too many online at once, draining the satellite's power before it could orient its solar panels to the sun.

Despite losing contact with Earlybird I, EarthWatch still maintains official optimism that the satellite isn't just a 700-pound piece of space junk. Before he was let go, company spokesperson Bob Wientzen still referred to Earlybird I's silence as an "interruption." Another company flack, Chuck Herring, maintains that when the satellite is contacted, "there is the possibility that staff could come back."

EarthWatch president Donovan Hicks and chief technology officer Walter Scott both personally refused to be interviewed. Herring explains, "We are drawing in, busy trying to understand what happened to Earlybird I."

"It ain't over till it's over," says Vipin Gupta, remote-sensing specialist at Sandia National Lab in Livermore. "This is not a whole lot of time to tackle a communications problem like this. It's been done before."

John E. Pike, a surveillance satellite expert at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, D.C., is amused by such optimism.

"This is like the scene in ER when they're pounding on the guy's chest long after he's dead," Pike cracks. "I don't know who they think they're kidding. I guess they're trying to convince investors it's still in the ICU and not in the morgue."

Rocket Sigh Ends

IN AN AGE of routine space shuttle launches and a televised Pathfinder mission on Mars, it's easy to forget that space enterprise is still a very risky business. France's SPOT-3 recently went silent prematurely, much like Earlybird I. And the last American effort, Landsat 6, built by the U.S. government, went up briefly before becoming a man-made meteor. Last year a TRW-built satellite called "Lewis" plunged into the Pacific.

EarthWatch hoped being the first privately owned satellite would help them take a big bite of the wide-open global market for satellite images. When their Earlybird missed the worm, the opportunity fell into the lap of Lockheed Martin's Space Imaging, which is putting the finishing touches on a satellite named Ikonos before shipping it to Vandenberg for launch on May 20.

John Copple, president and CEO of Space Imaging, says the company is learning from EarthWatch's failure and is making additional preparations that have caused the launch to be delayed a month.

"We're writing some additional ground software," Copple says. "You can always do a little bit more, and in our case we aren't in a rush. We never said we were going to be first."

Magnified Vision

THE HISTORY OF aerial surveillance goes back to the American Civil War, when Union troops used hot-air balloons to catch glimpses of the Confederate Army over a tree line or a horizon. Most military spying in the first and second world wars was done from aircraft flying low, close to the front lines.

The era of spy satellites began very soon after the space race started. The first of the U.S. series of "keyhole" spy satellites, called Corona, Argon and Lanyard, were built at the height of the Cold War, beginning in 1960. All three snapped thousands of high-resolution photos until 1972.

Corona, the world's first spy satellite, was capable of about 2-meter spatial resolution, a benchmark today's commercial imaging satellites have yet to reach.

Until the late 1980s, the United States restricted the resolution capabilities of nonmilitary satellites to keep sensitive images from falling into the wrong hands. President Carter issued Presidential Directive 37 restricting Landsat to 10-meter resolution. In 1988 President Reagan removed those restrictions, and in 1993 the Commerce Department issued EarthWatch a license to build a 3-meter satellite. In 1994, President Clinton signed Presidential Directive 23, permitting the Commerce Department to issue the newest round of 1-meter and sub-meter licenses.

Recently, to the delight of satellite analyst John Pike, all 800,000 pictures taken by Corona in the '60s and early '70s were declassified, and the old workhorse is scheduled for a stint in the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum.

Pike brags he's got a "steaming pile" of fresh Corona photographs from the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, a new bureaucracy created from the merger of the Defense Mapping Agency, the Central Imaging Office and the CIA's National Photographic Interpretation Center. On his Web site, he's placed the old Corona images side-by-side with the best commercial satellite images available from SPOT. The SPOT photos look fuzzy and blotchy, while the 35-year-old Corona images look as sharp as a naked-eye view from 30,000 feet.

Thirty-four years after Corona was mothballed, the capabilities of the newest generation of American "Keyhole" satellites are anyone's guess. And Pike's probably the most qualified non-spook to do the guessing.

"A few inches," he says, without elaborating.

Two inches? Four?

"Let's just say you're basically seeing softball-sized objects," he says. "Ten centimeters is probably a nice round number to use."

As a civilian without security clearance, Pike is looking forward to the first generation of commercial spy satellites as much as anyone. The images available from the French, Canadians, Indians and Landsat just don't hold a candle to the 1-meter images promised by EarthWatch, Space Imaging and Orbimage.

"One-meter speaks for itself," Pike raves. "That kind of imagery does not require an awful lot of explaining. It looks like the kind of image people see looking out of an airplane."

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New generation of spy satellites came in from the Cold War.

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Image Campaign

THE TERM "spy satellite" for anything not classified is really a misnomer. There is a vast difference between the capabilities of true "spy satellites" that provide top-secret images to the CIA and "commercial imaging satellites" that provide images for sale to the public. But the gap is shrinking.

Right now, as you read this paper, Russia, the United States, Britain, Israel and China have truly secret spy satellites buzzing the planet snapping shots far more detailed than you or I will be able to get from commercial satellites today or in the near future. But there is no stopping the march of technology, and in the case of satellite imaging the Pentagon seems far less interested in slowing it down than it is in supercomputers that can be used to test nuclear weapons and encryption that could allow any manner of global ne'er-do-wells to plot a government overthrow or the mother of all drug deals.

So what will keep Saddam Hussein from booting his Pentium, rolling up his sleeves, pulling his Visa Gold and ordering enough satellite images of the Persian Gulf to watch American ship and troop movements?

Well, in order for a satellite image to have any realistic military application, it must have adequate resolution and it must be timely. A three-week-old image in wartime is really no more useful to a military commander than a gas station road map.

Theoretically, a company such as EarthWatch and others like it could provide images precise and fast enough to be an asset on the battlefield. But it would take a lot of photos. And if an enemy of the United States were trying to buy that many photos, Kosta Tsipis, director of the Program in Science and Technology for International Security at M.I.T., believes the U.S. government would definitely catch wind of it.

Tsipis says the United States will find a way to monitor who is buying photographs of what--even if it means setting up a corporation that buys up the satellite time and then resells it to other customers.

"If you are the company that is renting the time, you clearly know what images are being purchased, because the downlink station keeps records," Tsipis observes.

Right now, Commerce Department regulations require satellite imaging companies to account for all images acquired over the past year and allow the U.S. government access to the list. The United States also requires notification of intent to enter "significant or substantial" accords with new foreign customers.

A more real threat, Pike says, is not that Saddam or North Korea will order that many pictures, but that front companies or even graduate students will be the pipeline. By keeping track of what is being photographed, Pike says, flags would go up in the U.S. government if, say, 1,000 Iraqi graduate students were ordering 500 pictures of the Persian Gulf apiece.

Open and Shutter

If all else fails, the United States maintains the ability to turn off the cameras outright--a provision known as "shutter control." If the secretary of state or the secretary of defense tells the secretary of commerce that operating these satellites poses a threat to national security or even the foreign policy interests of the United States, they can order the cameras shut off or remove their license to operate.

Chris Simpson, director of the Project on Satellite Imaging and the News Media at American University, thinks the "shutter control" provision gives the government too much latitude in deciding to censor information.

"What is meant by 'foreign policy interests of the US'?" Simpson asks. "It's a huge loophole through which any autocratic administration--including the Clinton administration--could shut down the cameras for any reason. You've got people who were saying that smoking marijuana poses a security threat to the U.S. just a few years ago."

Simpson argues the various embargos in place should prevent satellite imagery from getting into the wrong hands.

"You can't sell an Apple computer in North Korea, let alone a satellite image," Simpson says. "If the Chinese want to, that's their affair. With the UN embargo, Iraq is alone in the world and has greater difficulty purchasing this imagery than North Korea."

For 200 years, Simpson says, in order for the U.S. government to prevent publication of something--that is, to censor it--it has had to present a case in federal court, and then there was an appeals process.

"All that goes right out the window with this regulation," Simpson says. "If the secretary of defense gets up on the wrong side of the bed, that's that. There's no appeal."

Simpson believes the Defense Department's willingness to turn off the cameras can be judged from the Persian Gulf War. In 1991, images and news of the invasion were tightly controlled by the military. When a reporter from The Nation tried to join the press pool, access was refused simply based on the Defense Department's distaste for the magazine. By the time the lawsuits were filed, the conflict was over.

Clearly Controversial

THE ULTIMATE UNVEILING of the earth through a network of commercial satellites has created a stir of emotions, both pro and con. Unlike the politicians who fear a transparent globe, advocates of satellite imaging say the open window is inherently stabilizing--as long as everyone has access to it.

"The ignorance of the '50s was very destabilizing," Simpson says, citing the hysteria over the "bomber gap" and then the "missile gap." "There were several junctures as recently as 1985 where nuclear war was a real possibility."

Kosta Tsipis asks us to imagine a world where India and Pakistan could sign a treaty and both have access to the technology to verify it. Turkey and Greece could do the same, as could Argentina and Chile.

John Pike says imagery of Bosnia from U.S. spy satellites could have stopped a tragedy sooner.

"The U.S. had imagery of mass graves in Bosnia and we never bothered to look at it," Pike says. "It would be perfect for human rights organizations. They could tell the State Department to get on the stick and do something about it."

With 1-meter imagery, human rights groups could literally witness massacres in Rwanda and even monitor Chinese prisons for evidence of forced labor.

To prove his point, Pike posted satellite pictures on his Web site of Lorton Correctional Facility outside Washington, D.C. He believes images of that quality of Chinese prisons could change U.S. policy.

"There's nothing else that looks like a prison," he says. "You can see the walls and the guard towers. Put pictures like this at the U.S. Capitol and you'd make it real like few other things could."

Access for All

SCIENCE FICTION WRITER David Brin shares Pike's optimism. The author of an upcoming nonfiction book, Transparent Society, believes that a society of infinite, free-flowing information is the best defense against tyranny.

"No matter how competent your leaders are, it is human nature to fool yourself to fall in love with your own interpretations of the world," Brin argues. "Today when we're wildly discussing possible blemishes on the private parts of the leader of the free world, one can feel secure that he is not scheming a military coup."

When anyone has access to the information, anyone can also criticize the official interpretation of it.

"In all of human history we've only discovered one effective antidote to error; that antidote is criticism," Brin says.

In a truly transparent world, leaders could not keep secrets behind locked gates or the muzzle of a gun. And Brin's got a novel idea: "I think the best thing would be to beam images straight to oppressed peoples showing the palaces their dictators have built."

Pictures of the earth--pictures so precise they can discern not only individual trees, but the type of tree--have potential for both preservationists and plunderers.

Brazil's largest environmental organization, Instituto Socioambiental, uses satellites to track the destruction of the Amazon rain forest. Mining and oil companies use satellites to identify geographical features that hint of oil or minerals underneath.

Rick Wollman is a spokesman for Terra Industries, an agribusiness firm with a network of 425 locations where farmers can buy custom fertilizer, herbicides, pesticides and seeds. Terra already offers global positioning-system technology to allow farmers to more accurately measure crop yields. One day, any farmer will be able to also pick up a satellite image of his fields with even more information about farm productivity.

Evil Eye

BUT DESPITE THE MYRIAD private uses for satellite imagery, the greatest customer for pictures for the foreseeable future is government itself. Already, the U.S. government buys most of its non-intelligence-related imagery from private companies that resell images sent back by the constellation of government satellites in space.

Kass Green is president of Pacific Meridian Resources in Emeryville, a company that takes images from government satellites and resells them as usable maps. She says her biggest clients are the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Geological Survey and large timber companies like Weyerhaueser and Union Pacific. Recently, she used Landsat images to create a map for an insurance company to set rates for fire insurance in California. One-meter imaging would allow the insurance company to discern which houses are a greater fire risk due to brush density and which homes have wood shakes or tile.

As the resolution goes up and costs come down, applications grow for urban planning as well. Instead of sending inspectors out, they could catch that illegal shed behind a tall fence from the satellite photograph.

The idea that a local government could zero in on your house, as well as get your name and address, the assessed value of the home, court records, divorce records, voter registration and business licenses, gives some privacy advocates pause.

"Pieces of the puzzle are being filled in little by little," says Beth Givens, director of the nonprofit Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. "It's a gradual encroachment that's happening with all types of technology."

Givens published the Privacy Rights Handbook, a guide full of tips on getting rid of telemarketers, coping with identity theft, and maintaining privacy in cyberspace and the workplace.

"I'm wondering if people are willing to have technology let loose on them that can tell where they are at any time, out and about," she says. "I'm wondering if people are willing to be scrutinized by a powerful technology from above, especially if their whereabouts would be known."

Once the technology is available, Givens predicts law enforcement could link satellites to face-recognition software, a biometric indicator as accurate as fingerprints or retina and voice scans. No height of fence, or remoteness of location, would make naked backyard sunbathing safe. And according to Givens, people could be deterred from even more important activities.

"That would have a chilling effect on public demonstrations," Givens warns. "When I say that, people say I'm nuts--some kind of lunatic fringe."

People Monitor

JOHN CREW, an attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union in San Francisco, argues that just because technology makes it available and because private enterprise can make money off it doesn't necessarily make it a good idea.

"We are seeing increasingly as we approach the millennium the arsenal of Big Brother increasing faster than the courts can keep up," Crew says. "We are not fully developed in law or societal thinking on these issues."

Crew has seen high-tech gadgets that were once intended for military use trickle into law enforcement. For instance, the city of Oakland is considering purchasing high-powered cameras for the police department that could read a license plate from a mile away.

"What does it mean when innocent population movements are being monitored by camera?" he asks. If law enforcement is going to use intrusive, high-tech tools, there ought to be some cause for investigation and, he says, "they ought to get a warrant."

Crew thinks that California courts would prohibit a backyard search of a private home by a satellite "that you could not even perceive" without a warrant.

"This is technology that in the context of outdoor areas, you are completely defenseless," he says. "You could build a greenhouse, but then I suppose they'd get you for building an illegal structure."

Simpson would like to see ordinary people have greater access to satellite imagery, especially journalists. Privacy, he admits, is a legitimate concern, but most people don't understand the real threats. With new technology that benefits society, there is often some tradeoff of individual privacy.

"Any time an entity gathers information there is a tradeoff of privacy on one side and a public benefit on the other," Simpson argues. "The privacy trade [with satellites] is tipped more to the consumer's benefit than other trades."

Direct-mail companies collect far more information about individuals and people receive almost no societal benefit in return--unless you happen to win the Publisher's Clearinghouse Sweepstakes.

Simpson reminds that there are databases that know when you bought a car, got married, had a kid or got an oil change, but there is no satellite that can even tell for sure who you are.

But what if they could tell who you are, where you are, what you're doing and where you've been?

Transparent Argument

DAVID BRIN ARGUES there should be nothing inherently scary about this as long as you have the same ability to get information as anyone else. In the first chapter of Transparent Society, to be published in May, he cites the relative peace and lawfulness of London streets since cameras were installed to allow the police to keep an eye on them.

"The three greatest inventions of civilization are science, free enterprise and democracy," Brin says. "They all rely utterly on open information flows."

Brin agrees with Givens that in 10 years there will be no appreciable difference between the capabilities of spy satellites and those of commercial ones.

"At that point, transparency will be almost universal," Brin says. "We might as well develop its advantages, because the disadvantages will be with us forever whether we like it or not."

The disadvantages decrease as the individual's access to information--and power--is democratized.

"With universal world coverage from space, Saddam couldn't have moved a battalion toward Kuwait without everybody knowing about it," Brin muses. "Why not prevent invasions in the first place?"

As long as information wants to be free, it will be harder and harder to keep satellites from having the ability to see anything one can imagine. As Simpson likes to say, "The genie is out of the bottle."

"The question is not whether the cameras are coming. If we ban them, it will just make the bugs smaller and restrict their use to a secretive elite," Brin says. "The real question is will a sovereign people learn how to take control and make the cameras their servants, because the 21st century is going to be filled with light whether we like it or not."

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From the April 16-22, 1998 issue of Metro.

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