New satellites could transform the streets Big Brother – 03/01/2024 – Science

New satellites could transform the streets Big Brother – 03/01/2024 – Science


For decades, privacy experts have been cautious when it comes to technologies for snooping on Earth from space. They feared that powerful satellites would be able to get so close to individuals that they would capture close-ups that would differentiate adults from children or distinguish clothed bathers from those who enjoy walking in the natural state.

Now, according to analysts, a startup is producing a new class of satellites whose cameras, for the first time, will do just that.

“We are aware of the privacy implications this has,” said Topher Haddad, head of Albedo Space. According to him, the technology being developed will capture images of people, but will not be able to identify them, and that, even so, the company is taking administrative measures to resolve privacy issues.

Experts point out that what makes the surveillance that watches us from above potentially frightening is its ability to invade areas previously considered off-limits.

“This is a giant camera that sits in the sky. Any government could use it at any time without our knowledge. We should definitely be concerned about that,” said Jennifer Lynch, general counsel at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who in 2019 insisted for civilian satellite regulators to resolve this issue.

On the other hand, Haddad and supporters of Albedo’s technology say that the benefits must be considered, especially when it comes to combating catastrophes and saving lives. “You can see which house is on fire and where people are running to,” said D. James Baker, former head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which licenses civilian imaging satellites in the United States.

Based in the Denver, Colorado region, Albedo Space has 50 employees and has raised about $100 million. The company plans to launch its first satellite in early 2025, confirmed Haddad, which plans to operate with a fleet of 24 space vehicles.

Among the investors in Albedo is Breakthrough Energy Ventures, Bill Gates’ investment company. The strategic advisory board includes former directors of the CIA and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, a branch of the Pentagon.

The company’s website makes no mention of people’s images or privacy issues. Even so, reconnaissance experts stress that those responsible for regulating the sector should wake up before the satellites start taking their first close-ups.

For Linda Zall – a long-time former CIA employee who was involved with some of the country’s most powerful spy satellites – “we are dealing with a big deal.” Second, the equipment will reach homes, and people will realize that the things they hide in the backyard will be seen very clearly. “Privacy is a serious issue.”

“We are approaching a Big Brother-type world. We are being watched,” said Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at Harvard University who publishes a monthly report on civil and military space developments.

For a long time, space vehicles in orbit have been scanning the planet.

The potential that artificial satellites have for monitoring civilian life was attested to in the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Moscow denied any serious problems, but a non-military US satellite took a photograph on April 29, 1986, which showed that the reactor core had ruptured.

The visual power of a space camera is generally expressed as the distance, in meters, of the smallest thing it can show. The value of the first cameras was defined in meters. Today, it is in centimeters. According to experts, this improvement makes new images hundreds of times more detailed and revealing.

The satellite that photographed Chernobyl in 1986 was known as Landsat. NASA built it to monitor crops, forests and other resources on the ground. Its camera could detect terrestrial objects up to 30 meters away.

Today, the most powerful civilian imaging satellites can differentiate objects on the ground up to 30 centimeters in diameter. The images allow analysts to distinguish road signs and even the numbers printed on the tails of planes.

Albedo aims to capture images of objects up to ten centimeters. This became possible when the Donald Trump administration in 2018 took steps to relax regulations governing civil satellite resolution.

The Albedo boss grew up in Houston, studied engineering at Johns Hopkins University and the University of Texas. He worked for Lockheed Martin in Sunnyvale, Calif., a company that has long built spy satellites.

His partners are Winston Tri, a former software engineer at Facebook, and AyJay Lasater, a former satellite engineer at Lockheed Martin. They foresaw the emergence of a commercial market for satellite images up to ten centimeters accurate, as long as the costs were not astronomical. The solution they came up with was to place space vehicles in very low orbits that were comparatively close to their terrestrial objects. This allowed the satellite fleet to use smaller cameras and telescopes, reducing costs.

In the 1980s, Landsat was orbiting more than 640 kilometers high when it took images of Chernobyl. Therefore, Albedo’s founders planned low orbits, 160 kilometers high. At these low altitudes, however, spacecraft cut through the planet’s thin outer atmosphere, which reduces its speed and shortens its life in orbit. Albedo’s rovers, little bigger than a home refrigerator, will use booster jets to counteract atmospheric drag.

In December 2021, Albedo obtained regulatory approval to launch a ten-centimeter resolution imaging satellite. The new technology quickly caught the attention of the country’s military and intelligence agencies. In 2022, it signed a US$1.25 million contract with the Air Force.

In April 2023, the company closed another US$1.25 million contract, this time with the National Air and Space Intelligence Center, which assesses foreign threats.

Tri, co-founder of Albedo, said space cameras can detect vehicle details such as sunroofs, racing stripes and items transported in an open-body truck. “In some cases, we may even be able to identify private vehicles, which was not possible until now.”

Lynch of the Electronic Frontier Foundation has been dealing with satellite regulators for half a decade. She feels that little will be done to demand privacy protections from the eyes in the sky, and that Albedo and its supporters are “operating with blinders on to the effects on human rights.”


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