There are currently about 5300 satellites orbiting Earth, which means that thousands of cameras are taking real-time photos above you. Great advances in satellite photography since the launch of Sputnik in 1957 have raised many people's concerns about space surveillance. If you're worried about privacy, you might wonder what satellites actually see and where the data goes.
Satellite photography is a unique observation point for taking photos of the planet that can help scientists and others recognize patterns and trends. But this also raises concerns at a time when personal privacy is much more thoroughly studied than ever before.
Privacy has become a critical point in the digital age when companies record and store data when they shouldn't, and with data breaches that revealed millions of credit card numbers, government identification numbers, birth dates and addresses.
I spoke to cyber security experts to find out what you need to know about these eyes in real time in the sky, what you need to worry about and what you don't have to do. Most agreed that misunderstandings are a fear of technological dystopia and that the benefits of satellite photography outweigh the risks.
Not all satellites are the same
Satellites are able to take pictures from space, but experts say that most thousands of cameras in orbit are not interested in your home. For example, farmers rely on satellite imagery to help assess their crops throughout the growing season, while city planners use it to map highways more efficiently, according to Charlie Loyd, a photo specialist at online map maker Mapbox.
Satellite data helps organize travel and airmail. Environmental satellites document rising sea levels, hurricanes and fires. Geologists can also map fault lines and predict volcanic eruptions using data from radar satellites.
The United Nations maintains a satellite record from the 1960s, though many of them are no longer in orbit. Here are the main types:
- Military satellites – mainly for recognition, defense and intelligence.
- Commercial satellites – for communication, entertainment, maps and other purposes.
- GPS satellites – for operating navigation systems.
- Scientific satellites – for biological research programs, health care, climate research, space research, evaluation of agricultural patterns, weather and other.
Satellite images are less accurate than you think
Satellite images are nothing like spy movies in which you can zoom in until you see the freckles on a person's nose. In fact, today's photos are not accurate like the phone's camera. For example, every pixel you see – in a one-meter satellite image – covers one square meter of land.
As a rule, the lower the image resolution, the better the image quality. Click the links below to view simulated satellite images in multiple resolutions of the same object:
- 50 cm resolution: This is the most commonly used resolution in Google Maps. The image is pixelated.
- 25 cm resolution: this is the best publicly available resolution for satellites. The image is slightly less pixelated, but the details are still unrecognizable.
- 5 cm resolution: According to the technology expert Noorii Khan, this resolution is known within spy satellites. The picture is sharp. You see two men sitting at a bus stop, wet spots from melted snow, a trash can, and certain shadows on the pavement.
- 1 cm resolution: Experts believe that advanced government spy satellites use this resolution. You can see clothing details, cracks on the pavement and small pieces of rubbish on the ground.
Although the accuracy of the data may vary for each satellite depending on their photographic capabilities, the vast majority of images are usually not good enough to threaten the privacy of the average person.
"I suspect that most people think about accuracy and satellites based on what they see in adventure and spy movies," said John Gomez, CEO of Sensato Cyber Security.
Satellites come with rules
Satellites are actually subject to regulations. An American company that wants to launch a satellite must first obtain a license from the Federal Communications Commission and approval from the International Telecommunications Union.
Surveillance satellites must also comply with strict National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) regulations. according to Ben Lamm, CEO of Hypergiant Industries, an AI product and services company.
"If the satellite can see less than 0.3 meters, the satellite will be considered illegal or usable only by the defense industry. At this range, the satellite is able to identify cars, definitely houses, but not individuals, "said Lamm.
Jamie Cambell, founder of GoBestVPN.com, said the NOAA image brightness limitation only applies to American satellites. Lamm noted that the applicable laws and licensing requirements are strict enough to protect public privacy.
US regulations do not apply to satellites from other countries, but other countries also regulate their satellites. For example, Canadian satellites are subject to the Remote Sensing Systems Act. In addition, the General European Data Protection Regulation can apply to any imaging system that could personally identify EU citizens.
Drones may be much more likely to examine you
While satellites are taking pictures, experts note that drones and helicopters can also – much cheaper, easier and more accurate. Gomez said that drones that can track and identify faces are available at Amazon and Best Buy.
"Even if a person is running or hiding behind an object, wall or car, the drone will be waiting for him. It's a $ 1,500 drone, "said Gomez. "Think about what you can do with a professional drone."
According to Gomez, drones are also easier to deploy in more evil cells.
"They can stay on target for a very long time, and you can arm them if you want to take someone," he said.
For example, the International Space Station orbits the Earth several times a day and captures wonderful space photos. It is classified as an artificial satellite, but you would not expect it to be able to photograph the registration number. For comparison, last month (and much closer to the ground), a duty officer from Louisville Metro in Kentucky flew a police drone outside the apartment complex. The drone reportedly flew past many floors of 29 floors of the apartment and remained 5 to 10 feet from the balconies of the apartment.
Justin Sherman, a cyber security policy employee at Think Tank New America, said massive amounts of commercial satellites are allowing a new level of OSINT or the collection of open source intelligence. OSINT is data collected from publicly available sources that is used in the context of intelligence.
Although the satellites are taking pictures, Loyd said, the pictures are just pixels, unless they are then attached to the data. Potential privacy issues around satellites depend on the satellite you are talking about, your expectations and the abuse of other data streams.
Instead of hacking the satellite to reveal location patterns, Gomez said, it would be easier to hack a phone, phone provider or vehicle GPS to find out where you are and where you have been.
Khan said that government surveillance is under increasing public scrutiny. She said that there is a fine line up front between acceptable and intrusive monitoring. Cambell said that like most technology-related things, satellites move too fast for government regulation to keep pace.
Experts say that knowing what satellites can and cannot do is the key to stopping misinformation – although even experts can't know everything that's going on. At the same time, technology will continue to improve and it is difficult to say what satellites will be capable of in the future.