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Space images tracking you { May 18 2003 }

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May 18, 2003
Big Brother Is Tracking You. Without a Warrant.

The sky was nearly cloudless on Aug. 19, 1960, when Capt. Harold E. Mitchell took off from Hawaii in his stubby C-119 Flying Boxcar. A short time later, in the blackness of space, an orbiting satellite ejected a small film capsule that tumbled earthward protected by a heat shield. When it reached the lower atmosphere, a parachute deployed, and it began a slow descent over the South Pacific. Then, like an outfielder catching a pop fly, Captain Mitchell snagged the falling object — on his third try — in a trapeze-like contraption on the nose of his plane.

In that instant, satellite espionage was born. Inside the capsule were thousands of images of Soviet territory never before seen by American intelligence.

Forty-three years later, satellite imagery similar to that collected by the Central Intelligence Agency is available to anyone with a credit card. From detailed shots of India's nuclear sites, to high-resolution pictures of a neighbor's backyard, reconnaissance satellite images have become as easy to obtain as a novel from In fact, much of them are free for the taking from the Internet.

Last week, in an effort to increase satellite intelligence coverage of high-priority targets, President Bush ordered spy agencies to begin buying as much imagery as possible from private companies. The reason was quality and quantity. The close-up resolution of today's commercial imaging satellites is comparable to that of the spy world, and their numbers are constantly growing.

But the high quality and wide availability of such imagery is also raising questions. For more than four decades, American intelligence has aimed its cameras almost exclusively on foreign targets. But now the lenses are also being trained on American citizens.

Minutes after someone began shooting passengers at Los Angeles International Airport last July Fourth, for example, law enforcement agencies began receiving close-up images of the airport and the exact coordinates where the attack took place. The pictures came from the federal National Imagery and Mapping Agency, which is responsible for analyzing spy satellite images. Its imagery was also used at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City to assist the Secret Service and F.B.I. in security.

But as cameras take ever-closer aim at domestic targets, the legal, political and ethical issues remain unresolved. "Our whole posture as to how we respond to this is still a work in progress," said James Clapper, director of the mapping agency, in an interview last year with Signal Magazine.

In the meantime, satellite imagery abilities are growing exponentially. In addition to the expanded use of commercial satellites, which can be used for both foreign and domestic surveillance, plans are under way to increase the number of spy satellites. Under a program known as Future Imagery Architecture, the intelligence agencies plan to launch nearly a dozen imagery satellites to replace the four or five currently in orbit. Although smaller than their predecessors, these models, because of their increased numbers, will allow more continuous coverage of targets.

Given enough commercial and spy satellites, supplemented by aircraft and a ground system to marry it all together, the intelligence community might one day achieve the ultimate in coverage: constant, real-time surveillance of the planet.

But even without such coverage, imaging and other satellite technologies are already colliding with privacy concerns. Consider the constellation of global-positioning satellites that provide precise tracking information to hand-held receivers. Many people use them to pinpoint their locations while driving, boating or hiking. The president of Colombia, Álvaro Uribe, keeps one on him at all times in case he is kidnapped or is the target of an assassination attempt.

But the sheriff of Spokane County, Washington, found another use for a G.P.S. receiver. Hoping to discover where a suspected murderer hid his victim, one of his deputies planted a satellite tracking device on the suspect's car. The suspect unwittingly led the sheriff directly to the victim's grave.

Allowing the police to plant such devices on suspects without a warrant troubles many. "Do we really want the ability to track everybody all the time, without any suspicion, or without probable cause?" asked a lawyer, Doug Klunder, in The Seattle Post-Intelligencer last week. "How close are we to Big Brother?" On Tuesday, the Washington Supreme Court will hear arguments on whether a warrant should be required to secretly track a person's movements using a G.P.S. device.

Legal testing of this kind will almost certainly continue. As surely and steadily as satellite technology has migrated from the military to the marketplace, so too will its uses be challenged in court.

Two years ago, the police use of thermal imaging — a similarly intrusive technology — came before the United States Supreme Court. The technology detects patterns of heat coming from inside buildings. Under the right conditions, a highly sophisticated device may "see" the heat signatures of the people in a house and track their movements.

The police occasionally use the technology to locate marijuana inside by spotting the heat from the high-intensity lamps used to grow it. The Supreme Court decided that a warrant was required.

To take any other position, Justice Antonin Scalia said, "would leave the homeowner at the mercy of advancing technology — including imaging technology that could discern all human activity in the home."

In the home, Justice Scalia added, "all details are intimate details, because the entire area is held safe from prying government eyes."

James Bamford is the author of "Body of Secrets: Anatomy of the Ultra-Secret National Security Agency" (Anchor, 2002).

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company | Home | Privacy Policy | Search | Corrections | Help | Back to Top

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