I Always Feel Like Somebody’s Watching Me

Image from DigitalGlobe’s WorldView-3–at 40 cm resolution. Not so bad, eh? Image hosted on DigitalGlobe’s site.

Well, maybe not me specifically, and certainly not right now. However, if someone really wanted to watch me closely, then DigitalGlobe’s WorldView-3 satellite looks like it might be a decent tool to use for that.

DigitalGlobe just released an announcement and a few images produced from their latest satellite, WorldView-3.  The satellite has a more capable image sensor on board than previous DigitalGlobe satellites, and the pictures released on August 26, 2014, speak volumes about just how capable it might be.

The satellite was launched only a few weeks ago, on August 13, 2014.  It seems DigitalGlobe is wasting no time trying to bring the satellite on-line and are sharing these images to prove it.  A big “but” (everyone has one, according to Pee-Wee) is that the pictures aren’t the best resolution the satellite’s sensor can produce.  Every single image has been “resampled” to 40 cm, or a little less than 16 in, because the company is complying with regulatory restrictions.  The company will continue to comply with those restrictions until February 21, 2015, when the regulatory leash comes off and DigitalGlobe can release 30 cm (less than 12 in) resolution photos.

But, you, and many other interested people, can get a taste of the 40 cm re-sampled pictures just by viewing their slideshow of images of Madrid, Spain.  Their analysts are already identifying open car doors, freight cars, numbers on the runway, wear and tear of runways and roads, and a lot more.  Sure enough, when you look at the pictures, it looks like those are fairly identifiable.

Pretty neat, and there will be all sorts of applications arising to use the data in these images.  Unfortunately, there might be a downside.  I already wrote a short bit about China and its search for lawbreakers using images produced from their Gaofen-1 satellite.  But what if someone with a monetary interest, and a “use a hammer to resolve every problem” approach to customers starts using this data?  Say, like the US IRS?

Think this is unlikely?  Just think about the path our government agencies have been going down lately.  Still not convinced?  Well, there’s this story about the Lithuanian taxman using Google satellite imagery to find monetary miscreants.  Greece uses satellite imagery to find out if undeclared swimming pools have been built in backyards.  And while no one has said anything about our IRS using the internet satellite images for enforcement, they are already apparently using Facebook and Twitter to cross-reference taxpayer information.

Don’t misunderstand me.  It’s great to get better pictures from space of the things happening on the Earth.  But remember–there are a lot of consumers of this kind of imagery data.  Maybe we should start considering rules and regulations regarding which US government agency will be able to use them when US citizens are involved.  Some agencies don’t necessarily have your best interests at heart, and they are out to get you.  “I wonder who’s watching me now? [WHO?] The IRS?”

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