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Startups Are Launching Satellites to Spy on Us From Space

The real-time, high-res footage cameras are streaming back to the web is startling—and creepy.
Image via Skybox

For decades there have been spy satellites watching the planet from orbit, sending back information for government intelligence or scientific research. But until recently, the technology was too expensive and limited for private companies to join in the omniscient fun. Not anymore.

Thanks to technological advances in electronics and computing, a handful of VC-backed startups are working to send commercial remote sensing satellites up into space. The level of imagery and data the high definition cameras can stream back to the web—in near real-time—is startling.

First high-res HD video of the Earth from space, via Skybox

Silicon Valley's Planet Labs and Skybox, and Canadian startup UrtheCast, are new companies that have made headlines lately as business ramps up (H/T SpaceSky Blog). Each, backed by millions in investment funds, plans to make money by selling the hyper-detailed footage to interested parties—namely, other businesses that stand to gain from monitoring the globe’s facilities, infrastructure, crops and so on.

What's even more interesting—and unnerving—is that the startups aren't just selling images; they're selling big data gleaned from high-def space surveillance. Take Skybox, for example, which recently published the video footage above. It has a vault of historical and current data collected from government satellites, aerial footage, weather centers, and now its own space-based satellites. It plans to use this data to offer customers "infinite analytics."

Image via Skybox

Imagine this: A financial firm could watch the number of cars in a retailer’s parking lot to assess how business is doing to make smarter investments. That's one of the example applications of its Earth-monitoring analytics the company gives on its website. Others include watching salt piles dwindle throughout winter, or checking in on how many and what kind of ships are in ports around the world. Skybox calls it "Earth Observation 2.0."

As with most new technology that finds its way into the commercial sector, there are altruistic, social good applications alongside the potentially dystopian money-making ones. Planet Labs stresses that it plans to focus on the former. The startup has a fleet of 28 microsatellites, similar to CubeSats, that will frequently monitor the planet from low orbit. By unleashing a large number of small and relatively affordable satellites, albeit at lower quality, it plans to produce an "entirely new data set" in near real-time that can help farmers monitor their crop fields, or provide footage for rescue and aid crews after a natural disaster.

Remote sensing microsatellite from Planet Labs

The company also points out that it has chosen "an optical resolution of three to five meters—a scale that allows measurement of a tree canopy, but does not compromise individual privacy." Privacy is the elephant in the room. No matter how cool and useful it is that now anyone with an internet connection can behold the planet from an astronaut's point of view, the potential invasiveness of the emerging technology is pretty creepy, in a Truman Show kind of way.

But there are some privacy protections in place, at least for now. For one, at this point none of the commercial satellite images go close enough to pick out individual faces or identify people’s cars. Also, a year 2000 US Commerce Department rule forbids commercial use of images with greater than 50cm resolution, due to national security concerns. Only intelligence agencies and the military get those super high-res images, which is another argument in favor of commercial spy satellites: Now at least the public gets to spy on itself, too.

The question is, will these limitations stay in place? Already the slope is slippery. Companies are lobbying Washington to relax the decade-old rule and let them sell sharper imagery. And the US doesn't have a monopoly on space surveillance: France and Russia are also considering commercializing higher resolution photos, so the US may need to follow suit to stay competitive, which could end up driving down the privacy standard.


The fact is, space satellites in the hands of moneyed startups are capable of snapping photos of individual people, which is crazy to think about. Take the newest company, UrtheCast. It has just two satellites, a high-quality still camera, and a video camera that will snap footage from the International Space Station and stream it on the web. It plans to affix the cameras to the spacecraft by the end of this month.

Image via UrtheCast

Remarkably, the idea piqued the curiosity of the Russian spy agency, the RKA, who got in touch with the Canadian company and offered up its part of the ISS, provided it got to keep all the images of Russia, the Atlantic learned.  UrtheCast's website is still in beta, but boasts it will soon make unprecedented footage taken while orbiting the Earth available to the masses—like watching the sun rise and set in another country.

Those cameras are capable of capturing objects as small as cars, boats, and groups of people—but not individuals, the company claims. That seems like an awfully fine line to walk. Still, privacy advocacy groups haven't done much to take on the commercial satellite issue; presumably they still have their hands full with surveillance drones, the NSA, and the proliferation of recording devices on cell phones, laptops, license plates, police vests, retail shops, traffic lights, and lord knows where else.

At least with space surveillance, the shots have the potential to solve as many problems as they create, not to mention they’re real cool-looking. For better or worse the future is going to be fascinating to watch—literally.