The Ultimate in Aerial Survelliance.

The history of artificial satellites began with Sputnik, forty years ago. Today, satellites orbit the earth in huge numbers, existing to transmit tons of information: weather, television shows, telephone calls, GPS navigation, space communications, troop movements, and the like. One of the most popular uses of satellites is to visually monitor the earth. The technology has advanced far enough to be used by private citizens. Bill Gates has been thinking of buying a few, and, with a little capital, the average citizen can subscribe to several private companies to obtain their own images.

New high-res photo satellite: News boon, privacy nightmare?

By Adam Clayton Powell III, vice president/technology and programs


Early Bird 1, the world's first commercial high-resolution surveillance satellite, was launched Dec. 24, offering close-up pictures of Earth that until now have been available only to the CIA and other intelligence agencies.

Ten Meter Resolution An airport pictured at ten meter resolution

The satellite was built and launched by Colorado-based EarthWatch, which is now selling photos to news organizations, governments, companies and anyone else willing to pay a minimum $300 charge to open an account. EarthWatch is promoting its satellite images for applications that include urban planning, agriculture and mapmaking.

Early Bird 1 also will give news organizations a new tool to monitor world crises. Lower-quality and more expensive satellite images have been used for years by news outlets, and The Miami Herald, ABC News and other news outlets have said they planned to switch to the cheaper, higher-quality images provided by Early Bird 1.

But the new satellite also may pose some invasion-of-privacy problems. Last year, editors at a Freedom Forum conference who were shown pre-launch marketing information on Early Bird 1 and the next generation of surveillance satellites expressed concern that such satellites could violate individuals' privacy by capturing images of goings-on in back yards, balconies and even behind windows.


Meter Resolution The new one meter resolution

"We all want to catch the pimps and the prostitutes," said Rusty Coats, online manager of The Sacramento Bee, "but I drove 85 miles an hour to get here and I sure as hell don't want someone watching me."

Early Bird 1 offers clearer photographs than earlier satellites. Until now, French, Russian and American vendors of satellite images have produced photos that could show objects and structures that were approximately 33 feet high. According to EarthWatch, Early Bird 1 has three-meter (about 10 feet) resolution, meaning it can clearly show "buildings, roads, bridges and other infrastructure," while cars and other smaller objects also can be made out.

Anyone who has paid the minimum $300 charge can buy Early Bird 1 photos over the Internet. Black-and-white photos will be sold for $6 to $16 per square mile covered by the image. Color images, somewhat less sharp, will be more expensive.

"With the successful launch of Early Bird 1 behind us, we look forward to accelerating construction of QuickBird, our next generation, submeter-resolution commercial imaging system," said Donovan B. Hicks, EarthWatch president and chief executive officer, in a statement.

Photos from QuickBird, which is scheduled for launch in 1999, will have a resolution of less than three feet. Those images will enable purchasers to "stake out" an individual person -- and do it from orbit.

Personal satellites. A hovering camera in the sky, photographing your daily movements. Some dark predictions of the future have forecast an age of "personal" satellites - small, compact machines shot into orbit with the sole purpose of being a keyhole in the sky; a medium by which you are watched. Given the cost of a satellite, this is still science fiction, however.

Of course, a multitude of other organizations could use the satellites: law-enforcement agencies or transit companies. But the existence of such "eyes in the sky" will always make you wonder...