- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 23, 2006

Today, let’s look at terrorism, Google, spying from outer space, protesting governments and related subjects, including paranoia.

The problem is this: Until recently, spy satellites were the exclusive province of national governments. Technology buffs had fun speculating about their resolution and so on, but few really knew.

Then civilian surveillance satellites came along, charging their clients high prices but giving enough resolution for lots of legitimate civilian purposes, such as road building.

Then came Google Earth (https://www.google.com.mx/intl/en/options/), a free, downloadable program that lets you easily view any part of the earth from above. It uses a combination of satellite imagery and aerial photography.

Washington? Beijing? Baghdad? They are all there. The resolution varies from terrible to quite good. When viewing Arlington, you clearly can see sunroofs on cars and the shadows of streetlights on roads. Microsoft’s Virtual Earth is somewhat similar.

That’s fun. Try it. The resolution of such services, however, is about to improve to about 1 meter from satellites. For examples, you can poke around SpaceImaging.com.

Now, “resolution” is trickier to define than it sounds, but this certainly comes to a lot sharper satellite pictures than previously were available. Further, civilian satellites constantly get better. There is no technical reason why they cannot gradually add capacities that until now were associated only with highly secret military satellites.

This is upsetting governments. If you regard terrorism by remotely controlled or autonomous missiles or aircraft as a threat, the concern makes sense. If you go to Google Earth, you will see that when you put your cursor on, say, a building, the coordinates appear at the bottom of the screen. For example, the northern tip of Roosevelt Island shows up as 38 degrees 53’ 49.72” north, 77 degrees 03’ 50.49 west with an elevation of 3 feet above sea level.

Now, this information is readily available from ordinary maps. Further, you can get precise coordinates of any place that you physically can reach simply by going there with a cheap Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite receiver such as those that sell by the thousands on the commercial market.

What are not readily available are the coordinates of buildings, runways, hangars and so on in secret military installations. With the level of detail that is becoming available, anybody will be able get the precise location and, depending on the purpose of the facility, perhaps tell what it is doing. The world’s militaries are not thrilled by this.

Of course, any potential national enemy with a modern military already knows such things. They have their own satellites. But this has been true for a long time. National governments, however, are seldom crazy.

The fly in the ointment is the emergence of non-state forces (e.g., terrorists) who now have access to satellite photography online. They may, indeed, be crazy. The availability for $100 or so of GPS sets for potential guidance of missiles makes such terrorism technically possible and not terribly difficult.

Further, many governments lie to their people. A country may not want its secret political prison to be known to the world. If 50,000 people a day look at the camp with Google Earth, posting the photos to blogs, it will not be convincingly secret.

Any government wants to control overhead surveillance of its territory. France, however, may not care what Washington wants secret, or Washington what Iran wants.

Since there are now entirely civilian companies that do surveillance, control becomes yet more difficult.

So far, no bad guys have taken advantage of this technology. Maybe they won’t. But people who worry about it are far from merely paranoid.

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