Real-time satellite surveillance

Written December 2014

What if Google Earth gave you real-time images instead of a snapshot 1-3 years old?

Companies such as Planet Labs, Skybox Imaging (recently purchased by Google), and Digital Globe have launched dozens of satellites in the last year with the goal of recording the status of the entire Earth in real-time (or near real-time). The satellites themselves are getting cheaper, smaller, and more sophisticated (with resolutions up to 1 foot). Commercial satellite companies make this data available to corporations (or, potentially, private citizens with enough cash), allowing clients to see useful images of areas coping with natural disasters and humanitarian crises (see the recent efforts to report on protecting cultural heritage sites using satellites). But this data also could be used to monitor the comings and goings of private citizens. How do we decide what should be monitored and how often? Should we use this data to solve crimes? What is the potential for abuse by corporations, governments, police departments, private citizens, or terrorists, and other “bad actors”?


The technology:

Satellite Imaging Startups Skybox, Planet Labs Race to Cover Earth (Bloomberg, 2014)

How Swarms of Tiny Satellites are Creating a Real-Time Google Earth (Gizmodo, 2014)

SkyBox Gives Non-Profits Access to Real-Time Satellite Imagery (TNW News, 2014)

Real-Time Satellite Imagery and Data – NESDIS (NOAA)

Silicon Valley’s New Spy Satellites (The Atlantic, 2014)

Many Eyes on Earth (Nature, 2014)

Paired With AI and VR, Google Earth Will Change the Planet (Wired, 2015)

The potential benefits: 

3-D Satellite, GPS Earthquake Maps Isolate Impacts in Real-Time (EurekAlert, 2015)

Google’s New Skybox For Good Program Gives Real-Time Satellite Imagery To Nonprofits (Tech Crunch, 2014)

Spy Satellites Fighting Crime From Space (CNN, 2014)

Big Video Data Could Change Everything from Catching Bad Guys to Tracking Shoppers (VentureBeat, 2014)

The potential downsides: 

Satellite Imaging of Cultural Sites in Conflict: A Cautionary Note (AAAS)

The Ethics of Drone Surveillance is Presaged by What’s Happening with Satellites (ORCHID Project, 2014)

U.S. Intelligence-Sharing Leaves Ukraine in the Dark (WSJ, 2015)

Satellite Video Maps Let Anyone Spy Like the CIA (Motherboard, 2014)

Skybox: Google Maps Goes Real-Time – But Would You Want a Spy in the Sky Staring Into Your Letter Box? (The Independent, UK, 2014)