You can’t pick out license plates, but you can pick out just about everything else in UrtheCast’s new 4k hi-def video images, shot from the Iris camera on the International Space Station. That’s right: video. What you’re looking at is video shot from orbit, of a high enough fidelity that you can watch cars pulling onto streets and bunching up on the freeway.
UrtheCast has posted three videos shot from orbit, showing Boston, Barcelona, and London. The Iris camera used to capture HD footage is capable of one meter (just over three feet) resolution. And while it’s technically impressive, the privacy consequences are chilling.
Satellite services are sold to commercial concerns for harmless uses. Tracking traffic patterns, for example, or watching the results of a natural disaster to better organize rescue efforts. UrtheCast’s own pitch reads “A full suite of tools for businesses to monitor, analyze, and respond to global business projects.”
But we already know that technology is quickly turned to more sinister uses. The U.K. recently ditched the paper disks used to show which drivers have paid their road tax, instead using ubiquitous police cameras to scan license plates and compare them to a database of payments. Result–no more paper, and fewer tax dodgers. And of course, a log of 30 million license plate scans per day.
Or take the entire Internet as an example. While we initially saw a wild frontier of innovation, community and sharing, government agencies like the NSA saw an opportunity to capture pretty much everything we do. In short, if a technology exists, somebody will find a creepy use for it.
Because they’re shot from above, you can’t see license plates on these UrtheCast videos, but–putting a tin-foil paranoia hat on here for a moment–it’s not a stretch to imagine mandatory, machine-readable license plates on the tops of vehicles, especially in places like the U.K. where surveillance of the populace is already endemic.
Privacy concerns often focus in the wrong place. In Germany, where I live, Google’s Street View is rendered way less useful because much of it is blurred out–people can ask to have images of their homes blocked on the service. This probably makes them feel much safer, but what do they really gain? Not much. After all, who really sits and mouses through Street View looking for targets? It’s impractical. You may as well case your burglary targets the old-fashioned way, by walking the streets.
The real privacy issue goes unaddressed. The data behind Street View still exists, and data is the valuable part. You might not care about satellite tracking your car, everywhere it goes, because who’s really interested, right? It’s too abstract, and besides, you didn’t do anything wrong. But what if–hypothetically of course–a camera on wheels followed everybody, everywhere they went? A government camera, or maybe a camera from a fleet run by a private company?
Qualitatively, there’s not much difference between the two. In fact, if you live in a highly-surveilled country like the U.K., this is happening already, only the “robots” don’t rove, they pan and tilt on fixed poles.
We worry about our various governments hoarding our data, but video from space cameras is being gathered by private companies, and sold to other private companies. Governments might overreach, but at least they are regulated, and access to their data is more restricted. Even the NSA got spanked thanks to Edward Snowden ratting the agency out.
But such data in private hands is terrifying. Anyone can buy it and use it, for whatever they like.