The Future of Satellite Surveillance

Pretty scary -- and cool.

Remember, it's not any one thing that's worrisome; it's everything together.

Posted on June 24, 2013 at 5:31 AM • 28 Comments

Comments

remixJune 24, 2013 6:41 AM

This picture in the article is deceiving, [1] photo is planted as a photograph from a satellite but was taken from a helicopter [2] Quote:>>Wired took our team photo not in our beautiful offices, not in our mission control center, nor our manufacturing floor, but via a chartered helicopter, nonetheless.

[1]: http://www.wired.com/images_blogs/gadgetlab/2013/06/skybox-31.jpg
[2]: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=586666521378829&set=a.232113306834154.62587.163914390320713&type=1&relevant_count=1

officerXJune 24, 2013 6:51 AM

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_End_of_Violence

The End of Violence is a 1997 film by the German director Wim Wenders.

[...] has a conversation with an intelligence agent who makes it clear that anyone who gets in the way of a new “anti-crime” satellite surveillance program not yet approved by congress will be dealt with.

Just was reminded of that film...

DilbertJune 24, 2013 7:46 AM

This reminded me of "Enemy of the State" with Gene Hackman and Will Smith

www.imdb.com/title/tt0120660/

SimonJune 24, 2013 8:02 AM

The best thing is, it's ambitious! Aren't you sick of all the "safe" weeny stuff that gets funding?

Peter SmithJune 24, 2013 10:03 AM

That's not really new. Remember the "keyhole" series of surveillance satellites.

Best thing to avoid (optical) satellite surveillance is shooting with laser (disturbing / destroying the CCD sensor, but you have to choose the correct wave length)...

baloneyJune 24, 2013 10:18 AM

“Every day I bite my tongue so I don’t go to jail,” he says, quite seriously.

“If the wrong person gets pissed, they’ll shut us down in an instant,” he admits.

Sad commentary from the Land of the Free. Is there anything that governments do that doesn't stifle innovation and entrepreneurship?

tedJune 24, 2013 10:46 AM

"The disruptive threat that Skybox poses to the space-based commercial imaging market might also annoy some powerful people in the US government who could deny the company licenses, seize its technology or bandwidth, and place restrictions on the frequency and users of its service."

"If the wrong person gets pissed, they’ll shut us down in an instant"

Why build this in the US if making something better/faster/cheaper is such a hassle?

SimonJune 24, 2013 11:13 AM

@Peter Smith - think about it, it's like hitting a baseball-sized object hundreds of miles up traveling thousands of miles an hour with enough power to burn a hole in it with a laser powerful enough still, after passing through the atmosphere.

Even after you did that, spy satellites are protected from that very attack by technology similar to that found in fighter pilot visors and the canopies to protect from atomic flash, and a little like welder's helmet visors that darken instantly to protect the eyes from arc flash.

h4xxJune 24, 2013 12:02 PM

"Mission Control" doesn't look very secure. Wide open windows for spying, insecure apple products, wonder how long until a state or blackhat breaks into these things.

Bill PrattJune 24, 2013 12:11 PM

Looking forward to seeing the employees at Wal-Marts scrambling to deploy decoy cars when the Target satellites are scheduled to be overhead.

JoeJune 24, 2013 12:30 PM

The author starts by detailing what Interstate the truck is on, but misses the split between I-80 and I-90. It is I-80 that goes through the states named after Indiana. I-90 heads north through Minnesota, ending in Seattle.

JackJune 24, 2013 1:11 PM

It is interesting, but big on promises and low on explanations. I have only vaguely looked at the subject, though.

The further you go in orbit, the more ground to cover, the larger the hemisphere is to cross... my understanding of spy satellites is they have rocket fuel to move about, and therefore guidance systems and the like. Not exactly inexpensive.

If you want parking counts, just put together your own the ground security cameras which you already have facing all of these parking lots.

How many mini-sats without guidance systems and jets to move about are required for the kind of targeted surveillance they are talking about? Sounds like quite a few.

@ted
""If the wrong person gets pissed, they’ll shut us down in an instant"

Why build this in the US if making something better/faster/cheaper is such a hassle?"


Question people should be asking themselves in many areas of commerce. It would be like investing in Moscow after the October Revolution.

Expect to lose everything to the State.


FigureitoutJune 24, 2013 3:35 PM

In its own weird way, this vision of the future is just as inspiring as sending men to the moon.--No it's not, not even close; horrible analogy.

Yes, Skybox is planning to put the equivalent of cheap cell phone cameras into space, to beam the pictures down via something that is more or less DirecTV, to use cheap eyeballs to count cars or soybeans or whatever someone will pay to count. But the data those cameras provide might save the Amazon basin or the global coffee market—the uses are thrillingly infinite and unpredictable.
--Old technology/protocols are interesting, not "thrilling" or "exciting". "Quakesat" was interesting, counting cars in a Walmart...count me out. More space junk that will eventually burn up and be gone, turn the cameras outward into space, that's exciting.

G van GrijnenJune 24, 2013 3:38 PM

It's indeed not one thing that is worrisome, it's everything combined.

It's the general tendency that is worrisome.

It's what you fear the world is heading to.

In your worst nightmare you see a society of slaves controlled by those who have knowledge as envisioned by Fritz Lang and George Orwell.

JonJune 24, 2013 5:04 PM

@ Figureitout : indeed

Even taken on its own merits, this bit
"But the data those cameras provide might save the Amazon basin or the global coffee market—the uses are thrillingly infinite and unpredictable."
is hoplessly (or wilfully) naive. Yes, they *might* be used for those things, but it's more likely they'll be scouring the Amazon looking for the last remaining stands of some rare hardwood tree to cut down and mill for timber. Or pulp for high-end paper.

willyJune 24, 2013 5:44 PM

All this,for the last few weeks, is depressing. Reminds me of "Sky Command" and some very annoying movies.

Dirk PraetJune 24, 2013 6:30 PM

As usual, the - in this case really cool - technology itself is neutral, but when in the hands of the wrong people brings us yet another step closer to an Orwellian dystopia.

FigureitoutJune 24, 2013 7:08 PM

Jon
--And if we dump enough junk in orbits we will literally be a prisoner of our own device.

warlordsJune 24, 2013 8:24 PM

advanced 3d printers 30-50 years from now which churn out tiny sats which launch themselves and maintain themselves while in space, updating their programming while in space and with each new launch, creating decentralized and centralized networks like street gangs, sometimes working sometimes warring vs. the other with the idea of improvement in battle and intel harvesting.

larger mother ships with whale mouthed capture for grabbing a random set of sat-bots and gathering intelligence on their combined activities in their current partition of space

i envision a design mirrored from under our seas, each creature with its own purpose, strengths and weaknesses

John SchillingJune 25, 2013 1:11 PM

The reason the DoD controls some 80% of the commercial satellite imaging market is that almost nobody else is willing to pay real money for satellite imagery. It is unclear that Skybox will be able to change that.

Satellite imagery, and particularly satellite imagery from the sort of fairly modest satellites people are talking about here, isn't really all that good. There's a reason why just about every story extolling the virtues of satellite imagery, including the linked article, uses aerial photography as a visually appealing substitute, why Google Earth resorts to satellite images only when it absolutely has to.

Can you pull useful data out of images with one-meter pixel size? Sometimes, certainly. Is it easy? Usually not. Is it cost-effective for someone who doesn't have a literal license to print money? So far the answer seems to also be "usually not". And maybe Skybox will be able to change that, but anyone who tells me about the satellites is missing the point. Tell me about the algorithms that will pull signal from all that noise. Do the math, including the part with the dollar signs.

Otherwise, I'll spot you free satellites with unlimited one-meter imagery, and you'll go broke trying to make sense of it. And then I'll have to figure out how to deal with a bunch of abandoned satellites...

Northern RealistJune 25, 2013 1:38 PM

@Jack - re Wal-Mart setting up decoy cars in the lots...

Based on your coming up with that thought, I think you'd probably enjoy a book called "To Fool a Glass Eye"... deals with deceiving photo-recon, etc.

Northern RealistJune 25, 2013 1:40 PM

Oops... that should have creditted Bill P for that comment on Wal-Mart decoy cars

Northern Realist June 25, 2013 1:47 PM

@Bill P - sorry, I should have attributed that comment about Wal-mart to you post -- somehow I got it into my head that Jack had posted it!

@Jurjen
Do a GOOGLE search on "keyhole" and "corona" sats - the XKCD explanation is rather bogus, as the technology pre-dates Hubble...

Kevin an AuditorJune 25, 2013 2:10 PM

I was still suffering a splitting headache, caused by staring into a telescope for 16 hours a day, for six straight days, at a parking lot from a hotel room in Hartford when I returned to the corporate headquarters in Chicago. The parking lot employees were stealing, but basically trivial amounts. The loss didn't justify the total $7k spent on my trip. The real problem was that a parking garage across the street had undercut the lot's rates, and the lot was more than half empty. The precipitous drop in revenue had prompted my surveillance and then surprise audit. I finished my report with "It would be cheaper to buy commercial satellite photographs." It was 1995. And they took my advice and still use them.

(Actually, the night shift attendant was allowing his very drunk girlfriend to run the lot while he walked around the block smoking a joint. She was staggering into the street waving in traffic heading to the local night clubs. This exposed the company to extraordinary liability. I don't think we'd have caught that, unless we used infrared. His day job was at the IRS.)

I still use satellite photography as appropriate.

JimBoJune 25, 2013 3:58 PM

Like many articles in Wired, its all hype. Satellite with a 500 mile orbit will 1) come down soon, 2) have far less resolution than KH series, certainly not track a FedEx truck real time or anything else. The satellite is in ORBIT, it can't follow some truck down the road!

John SchillingJune 25, 2013 4:43 PM

@JimBo: A moderately small satellite in a 500-mile orbit will come down in a bit over a hundred years, so that's not a concern - at least not to Skybox and its customers. As I noted earlier, cleaning up when they're done will be an issue.

But you are dead on in the real-time tracking issue. In particular, a satellite in a 500-mile orbit will be in view of a particular ground target for perhaps ten minutes at a time, twice per day. It would take a hundred or so satellites to do real-time tracking, and then they wouldd have to decide which target you are going to track. With about twenty million square kilometers field of view, they aren't going to be taking one-meter real-time imagery of everything at once.

Is there a version of this plan anywhere where they have actually done the math?

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