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Home / Tips and Tricks / It turns out that satellite surveillance only sounds like a big concern for privacy

It turns out that satellite surveillance only sounds like a big concern for privacy


The ESA Aeolus satellite is used for Earth observation.


About 5,300 satellites are currently orbiting the earth. This also means that thousands of cameras take pictures of you in real time. Important advances in satellite photography since the launch of Sputnik in 1

957, many people worry about the surveillance from space. If you're worried about privacy, you may wonder which satellites can actually see and where the data is going.

Satellite photography provides a unique starting point for capturing photos of the planet that scientists and other patterns and trends can detect. But there are also concerns when privacy is far more critical than ever.

Data protection has become a hot topic in the digital age as companies capture and store data when it's not intended, and when it comes to privacy violations. That has revealed millions of credit card numbers, government identification numbers, dates of birth, and addresses.

I talked to cybersecurity 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 do not. Most agreed that misperceptions created fears of technical dystopia, and that the benefits of satellite photography as a whole outweigh the risks.

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Bigelow Aerospace

Not all satellites are alike

Satellites are capable of taking photos from space, but most thousands of in-orbit cameras are irrelevant to your home, experts say. For example, according to Charlie Loyd, an image specialist from Mapmaker Mapbox, farmers rely on satellite imagery to assess their crops throughout the growing season, while city planners use the freeways more efficiently.

Satellite data helps organize travel and air mail. Environmental satellites document rising sea levels, hurricanes and forest fires. Geologists can also map fault lines and predict volcanic eruptions using data from radar satellites.

The United Nations maintains a satellite registry that dates back to the 1960s, although many are no longer in orbit. Here are the main types:

  • military satellites – mainly for reconnaissance, defense and intelligence services.
  • Commercial Satellites – for communication, entertainment, mapping and more.
  • GPS satellites – to support navigation systems.
  • Scientific Satellites – for biological research programs, health care, climate studies, space research, assessment of agricultural patterns, weather and more.
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    The Landsat 8 satellite shot this campfire in California on November 8, 2018.

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

Satellite photos are less accurate than you think

Satellite photos are not like a spy movie you can zoom into until you see freckles on a person's nose. In fact, photos today are not as accurate as your phone's camera. Each pixel that you see in a one meter resolution satellite image covers one square meter of ground.

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

  • 50 cm resolution: This is the resolution most used in Google Maps. The picture is pixelated.
  • 25 cm resolution: This is the best publicly available resolution for satellites. The picture is slightly less pixelated, but the details are still not recognizable.
  • 5 cm resolution: This is the resolution, which is known in the context of spy satellites, according to the technology expert Nooria Khan. The picture is focused. You can see two men sitting at a bus stop, wet spots of melted snow, a dustbin and defined shadows on the pavement.
  • 1 cm resolution: Experts believe that this resolution is used by advanced government espionage satellites. You can see clothing details, cracks on the sidewalk and small pieces of debris on the floor.

While the accuracy of satellite data may vary from satellite to satellite depending on the recording capacity, most pictures 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 cybersecurity firm Sensato.

Satellites have rules

Satellites are governed by a set of rules and regulations. A company wishing to launch a satellite must first obtain a Federal Communications Commission license and a license from the International Telecommunications Union, and that takes time.

According to Ben Lamm, CEO of Hypergiant Industries, an AI product and services company, more time remains for surveillance satellites that also meet the stringent National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and regulations have to.

"If the satellite can see less than 0.3 meters, the satellite is classified as illegal or usable only for the defense industry, and within that range, the satellite may be able to identify cars, definitely homes, but not individuals." Said lamb.

Cambell pointed out that the upper limit of NOAA's image sharpening requirements applies only to US satellites. For example, Canada's satellites are subject to the law on space remote sensing systems. In addition, the basic European Data Protection Regulation can apply to any imaging system that personally identifies EU citizens.

According to Lamb, current regulations and approval requirements are strict enough to ensure privacy of the public. In addition, all provided imaging satellites will be reviewed and tested to ensure privacy.

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Drones raise new privacy issues.

Stephen Shankland / CNET

Drones More Likely to Survive

While satellites take pictures, experts say that this can also be drones and helicopters – much cheaper, easier, and more accurate. Drones that can detect and identify faces are available from Amazon and Best Buy, Gomez.

"Even if the person runs or hides behind an object, a wall or a car, the drone waits for it is a $ 1,500 drone," said Gomez. "Think about what you could do with a professional drone."

According to Gomez, drones are easier to use even for nastier purposes.

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

For example, the ISS orbits the earth a few times a day, capturing stunning photos from space. It is classified as an artificial satellite, but you would not expect it to be able to photograph your license plate. Last month (and much closer to the ground), a Louisville Metro off-duty police officer in Kentucky flew a "LMPD drone" in front of the downtown's 800 Tower City Club apartments. The drone reportedly flew several floors of the 29 floors of the apartment and remained 5 to 10 feet from the balconies of the apartment.

Justin Sherman, a member of cybersecurity policy at Think Tank New America, said that the masses of commercial satellites enable new levels of open source news gathering, known as OSINT. OSINT is data collected from publicly available sources for use in an intelligence context.

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

Gomez said, instead of hacking a satellite to reveal your location patterns, for example, it would be easier to hack your phone, phone, or GPS system to find out where you were and where you were.

Khan said that government surveillance is subject to increasing public scrutiny. There is a thin line between acceptable and intrusive surveillance from above, she said. Jamie Cambell, founder of GoBestVPN.com, said satellites, like most technical things, are moving too fast for the government to continue regulating.

Experts agree that knowing what satellites can and can not do is the key to stopping misinformation, but it's impossible to know everything. However, experts and watch dogs are watching technical progress at lightning speed.

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