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--- begin forwarded text
Date: Tue, 27 Jan 1998 14:55:09 -0500
Subject: sat survailience
To: rah <[email protected]>
Bob - something else to be paranoid about!
When Is a Satellite Photo An Unreasonable Search?
By <some reporter>
Staff Reporter of <A big newspaper>
Over the years, satellite photos have plotted the course of Soviet warships
and tracked the movements of Iraqi troops.
Last year, they also nailed Floyd Dunn for growing cotton on his Arizona
farm allegedly without an irrigation permit.
Mr. Dunn contends that he did have the required permits but paid the $4,000
fine to maintain good relations with the Arizona Department of Water
Resources. "You can't argue with a satellite," he says. "Being caught like
I was caught is kind of unfair."
As state and local agencies make more use of satellite imagery -- for
everything from surveying illicit crops to detecting unauthorized building
-- they're raising questions about the propriety of spying on American
civilians from the sky.
"It certainly has a 'Big Brother Is Watching You' flavor to it," says Larry
Griggers, a director at the Georgia Department of Revenue. "But it prevents
us from having to spend money for other types of enforcement." The state
tax authority plans to use National Aeronautic and Space Administration
satellites to check all 58,910 squares miles of the state for unreported
timber cutting. It also plans to share the photos with any state agency
that asks, which could lead to a wide variety of enforcement actions.
Does taking satellite photos of private citizens and their property --
generally without their knowledge -- violate the Constitution's Fourth
Amendment protections against unreasonable searches? The American Bar
Association has organized a task force to explore that question, as well as
such issues as how long photos can be kept on file and how freely they can
be shared with police. Because U.S. Justice Department officials are on the
task force, the recommendations are expected to influence how
law-enforcement authorities and civil agencies use the new images and at
what point they require warrants.
Use of satellite images has increased markedly since the early 1990s, when
the Russian space agency, Sovinformsputnik, began selling spy-quality
photos to raise cash. The U.S. lifted its own restrictions on sale of
high-resolution satellite photos in 1994, which encouraged entrepreneurs to
launch satellites of their own that could compete with the Russian imagery.
Those efforts may soon pay off. This year a joint venture of Lockheed
Martin Corp. and Raytheon Co. hopes to launch a satellite that will yield
imagery detailed enough to distinguish sedans from minivans. Another firm,
Earthwatch Inc. of Longmont, Colo., says it is proceeding with plans to
launch a similar satellite in 1999 -- despite the recent loss of radio
contact with a less-advanced model the firm launched in December. Both
enterprises decline to discuss their public-sector clients.
Some state and local agencies have been purchasing photos from French,
Indian and U.S. government satellites since the 1980s, and increasingly
powerful computer software is allowing them to make better use of the
The Arizona Department of Water Resources spotted Mr. Dunn's cotton crop,
for example, because it routinely obtains photographs from the French
government's SPOT satellites of 750,000 acres of central Arizona farmland.
State officials then compare the images with a database of water-use
permits to determine which farmers might be exceeding water-use rules.
"A week doesn't go by where somebody doesn't propose a new use," says John
Hoffman, whose Raleigh, N.C., business, Aerial Images Inc., has become the
main reseller of images taken by Russian intelligence satellites.
Much of what Mr. Hoffman has available is old imagery of Western cities.
But he says he can also take orders for new photos on upcoming missions.
Price: $6,500 to photograph 10 square kilometers with resolution of about
six feet, which he says is sharp enough to distinguish cars from pickup
In North Carolina several counties are using Mr. Hoffman's photos to find
unreported building activities, agricultural development and other property
improvements that would raise property-tax assessments. Demand from state
and local agencies in his region is so strong, he says, that
Sovinformsputnik, the Russian space agency, has scheduled a Feb. 17 launch
of a satellite that will concentrate mainly on photographing the
Pictures taken from airplanes at lower altitudes are often more revealing,
but satellite imagery can be much more cost-effective. Photographing an
area the size of a small town, for example, can cost tens of thousands of
dollars by airplane, approximately twice the cost by satellite. Some
satellite imagery is faster as well. Although the satellites Mr. Hoffman
works with use conventional film that is developed after the satellite
returns to earth, newer camera platforms can transmit images digitally just
minutes after they are taken.
To date, there have been few legal challenges to the use of satellite
imagery. But the technology of overhead photography is evolving faster than
the law. Courts have allowed government officials to take detailed pictures
from airplanes flying as low as 1,200 feet. And in 1986, the U.S. Supreme
Court ruled that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was permitted to
photograph a Dow Chemical facility in Midland, Mich., because the EPA used
relatively conventional airplane-camera equipment.
But the high court raised a red flag in that case: "It may well be ... that
surveillance of private property by using highly sophisticated surveillance
equipment not generally available to the public, such as satellite
technology, might be constitutionally proscribed absent a warrant."
The ABA task force is exploring just these questions. Sheldon Krantz, chair
of the task force and a partner at Piper & Marbury LLP in Washington, says
that it will propose in April that law-enforcement agencies be required to
obtain warrants to use "satellite cameras [that] can focus on images of a
few feet across." That standard would probably include most advanced
satellite images, although the task force has yet to agree on more specific
"We need to make some big value judgments about these practices before they
become so widespread," says Mr. Krantz.
Some businesses say they welcome oversight from space. Georgia-Pacific
Corp. and other big timber concerns support the Georgia Department of
Revenue's forest survey, saying it will help to disprove accusations that
they have secretly cut trees without paying taxes.
Several small timber owners already have been fined a total of $2,000 in a
test of the statewide program that took place in Wayne County, near
Savannah. And as sharper-resolution photos become available, some Georgia
officials suggest the program could be used to look for objects as small as
backyard porches, to check if homeowners have their construction permits in
--- end forwarded text
Robert Hettinga ([email protected]), Philodox
e$, 44 Farquhar Street, Boston, MA 02131 USA
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