Satellite Video Maps Let Anyone Spy Like the CIA

Add online map data to space cameras and you get some crazy next-gen surveillance.

Satellite Video Maps Let Anyone Spy Like the CIA

Image: Skybox

For decades, spying on the planet with Earth-orbiting satellite cameras was restricted to classified military and intelligence ops. That's becoming less and less true, thanks to the rise of companies launching commercial satellites into space to beam back HD photos and real-time video to anyone with an internet connection—or enough money to order up specific footage.

Startups like Planet Labs and Skybox have showcased some of their early imagery online, most recently a real-time video of planes landing at the Beijing airport, captured in December by Skybox's constellation of microsatellites, and recently published on Vimeo.

Satellite imagery is always pretty cool to watch, but unlike previous examples this video is also integrated with a map and pulls in data from the web. The video sits on top of a static satellite image that's overlain by a map layer—created as an experiment by Skybox and the open-source map company MapBox.

It's a peek at the next-generation of digital cartography: moving maps, based on super-detailed continuous footage from the sky. Just think, instead of a little blue dot, your GPS app shows your actual car moving along the map as you drive. It’s pretty crazy stuff, like living inside a video game.

Since the video-map is online, developers can pull in whatever additional data they want to supplement the footage. In the case of the Beijing airport, map-makers used public flight logs to identify the plane in the video as Air China Limited flight 1310, flying from Guangzhous to Beijing. They can also chart the exact direction cars are driving in.

"The idea of video from space is very new but the benefit of seeing movement and direction over many frames is amazing," Mapbox's Paul Goodman wrote on the company blog yesterday. "Seeing the aircraft headed to a specific terminal provided context to help identify it and watching cars move down a road shows directionality useful for better road classification. It’s early—but the idea of more data is really exciting."

"Data" is the key word here. Space imagery companies aren't trying to encourage the connected citizenry to become DIY spies; they're offering business intelligence, marketing analytics based on surveillance data to the commercial sector. Integrating geospatial navigation just adds more information to the package.

"The value of geospatial information has continued to grow as satellite imagery and GPS data become increasingly timely and accessible," wrote Skybox on its blog. To that end, the company recently began selling 90-minute HD video clips of any piece of the Earth a moneyed individual or business wants to monitor live, and in a high enough resolution that it's comparable to standing a few feet away.

That is starting to sound closer to a citizen CIA—or at the least a commercial one.

@rchoi Ryan, glad you think it’s awesome! But no need to worry, the resolution of our images/videos is not high enough to view/ID people.

— Skybox Imaging (@skyboximaging) March 4, 2014

Granted, space-based satellite cameras aren't going to match the photo quality of surveillance drones. But unlike UAVs, the birds offer a continuous shot of the entire globe, and thus the ability to custom-order a peek at, say, a competitor business or construction project going on halfway around the world.

Unsurprisingly, the burgeoning technology has conjured up some Big Brother fears, and this despite the fact that government spy sats have been orbiting the planet for decades. But Planet Labs, Skybox, and a third commercial space satellite company UrtheCast—which recently affixed two satellite cameras onto the International Space Station —all say that their image resolution stops just short of capturing privacy-invading detail. Houses, but not home numbers. Cars, but not license plates. Crowds, but not individual faces.

Publicly, government intelligence agencies say the same thing—but that's a hard thing to believe.

surveillance states, space, satellites, privacy, power, photography, spy satellites