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High-resolution satellites: are our privacy expectations too high?

  • AuthorKate Baucherel
  • Published Wednesday, April 29th, 2015
  • Comments1

As you read this, a satellite is orbiting above you with a camera sufficiently powerful to identify ‘manholes and mailboxes.’ It’s been hard at work for over six months, but companies like Google can now sell data from Digital Globe, a commercial vendor of space imagery. With a sharp new publishable resolution of just 31 cm (12 inches), there is the chance that, regardless of Google’s blurring of faces and registration marks, you could easily be recognized as you are snapped going about your daily business. Is this loss of privacy a reasonable price to pay for the benefits that such technological advances bring?

Imagery for the greater good

Advocates of the introduction of high-resolution satellites—and crucially of the legal amendments that enable the images to be shared—cite humanitarian and global benefits. There are very few developments in technology that do not advance the greater good in some way.

Our environment is a clear winner: Observations and inspections from space could help to protect crucial and fragile ecosystems and deepen our understanding of natural disasters or local weather anomalies. Disaster relief suddenly becomes swifter and more effective when up-to-date and detailed satellite imagery reveals changes in the terrain, specific locations to target, and the needs of a population, before implementing response efforts. In a study of the Caribbean, researchers from the University of Chester evaluated the use of high-resolution imagery in the understanding and control of landslides in tropical regions. The authors concluded that there is great potential to reduce loss of life, major economic losses, social disruption and damage to public and private properties: Quality satellite images allow professionals to identify areas of instability before landslides occur, additionally, the ability to map new landslides quickly and efficiently after a landslide disaster also improves the emergency response. Interestingly, the images are actually much cheaper and quicker to acquire than existing sources – an unexpected benefit.

The satellite data that builds understanding of the economic activity on our planet, the movement of human capital and the effect on our landscapes, towns, and cities, will be improved. In March 2015, the University of Minnesota became one of the first institutions to gain access to the Digital Basecamp, an online map and database of this current, high-resolution satellite imagery of the globe, through the DigitalGlobe Foundation. They will be taking this resource forward in teaching and research across disciplines, building our knowledge of the globe. Add to this tool the news of Google’s acquisition of Skybox satellites last year, and there is the real possibility of developing an ‘Earth Cloud’ – the equivalent of the planet’s Instagram feed, holding a mirror up to its daily life; a rich seam of big data ready to be mined.

The Privacy Dilemma

Such exciting possibilities: Personally, I’m looking forward to seeing my own backyard in higher resolution; I can just make out my kids’ bright yellow space hopper on the grass on Google Earth, and I’m disappointed when the screen flicks to an out-of-date (though higher resolution) Street View. This is borne of the same sense of wonder that has me staring out of plane windows trying to identify ground features, getting a sense of place as I ride above the earth. But what about the minutiae of my neighbours’ properties and daily activities, or the land management practices of the farmer whose fields start just across the street? Would they believe someone like me to be exhibiting natural curiosity or sinister voyeurism? Does the wider population have suspicions of the use to which this imagery could be put?

There is a growing body of research around personal feelings about satellite monitoring, but as with many subjective topics, declared opinion is not always borne out by behavior. According to research conducted at University College London, 58 percent of Australian farmers and 75 percent of U.K. farmers agreed that satellite monitoring could be an invasion of privacy. However, these are the same farmers whose European farm subsidy inspections are very likely to have been carried out using satellite data, speeding up the payment process and tightening compliance. In 2010, satellites conducted 70 percent of the total required controls on farm payments in the EU, and higher resolution images would remove the need for additional drone surveillance, which was under test at the same time. Although there may be an expression of resistance, expectation of monitoring changed behaviour, as UCL researcher Ray Purdy told the Sydney Morning Herald’s reporters at the time: “It is the expectation of being monitored that has improved compliance and reduced fraud levels in Britain.”

In common with most of us in this fast-moving digital world, British farmers are increasingly likely to store digital photos in the cloud, and share news with family and friends online through social media and other channels. Their movements are already tracked by some of the 1.85 million CCTV cameras in the U.K., with the average citizen caught on camera up to 70 times a day. This seems to indicate a conflict between the opinion that privacy is being compromised, and the willingness to embrace the benefits of the same technology in daily life. Should expectations of privacy move with the times, or will the introduction of higher resolution imagery throw the whole question into sharp focus?

In 2009, when Street View was launched in the U.K., protests of privacy breaches were made to the Information Commissioner’s Office, the U.K.’s privacy regulator. Google applies a blanket pixilation of facial features and registration marks, to the extent that even the faces of celebrities on billboards were obscured, but despite this, some individuals were easily identified. One person who had been rehoused to escape domestic violence was pictured outside her new home, and there were, as one might expect, a number of people caught in compromising circumstances. The complaints were not upheld. It’s true that since the initial U.K. ruling, Google’s Street View has fallen afoul of other privacy actions in the U.K., across the U.S., and in Korea, Australia, Italy, France, and other states: However, these rulings involve data which are not image-based, such as Wi-Fi network information, ‘eavesdropping’ claims, and control or deletion of collected data. The principles enshrined in U.K. case law for photographic complaints is clear: The focus of an image must be on the individual for a breach of privacy to occur. Satellite sweeps are not focused on one person; therefore it’s unlikely that, whatever your personal feelings may be, being recognizable on a satellite image constitutes any actionable invasion of privacy. However, with digital images available across the world, legal definitions of privacy can leave us feeling naked.

Privacy by intent: shades of grey

Our instincts are to classify that which we share willingly as public, and that which we choose not to share as private. Posting on social media is “public” (regardless of your privacy settings); saving images to the cloud is “private.” There is outrage when hackers publish things, which we feel, at a visceral level, to be private – whatever the social good that might come from leaks and scoops. The Wikileaks and Edward Snowden revelations, the Sony hacks, and other high-profile breaches sit firmly in this gray area: Information that was intended to be private has been shared, but sharing has changed bad practice and contributed to the common good. Which is morally right? How can we choose?

Our fundamental and declared discomfort over satellite imagery is rooted in this inherent black-and-white distinction. We have no control over what part of our lives may, as a result of this technology, become public. How, though, in an increasingly monitored world, where our lives are already played out in front of cameras with our knowledge and consent, can we justify the argument that our actions are private by intent? We are being hypocritical if we claim satellite evidence of our ‘private’ actions should not be published; we are being inconsiderate when their inadvertent exposure in a satellite sweep is part of a much bigger agenda, which could change our world for the better. Perhaps this is the time to realize that the world does not revolve around us, and bigger issues are at stake— and it is time to admit that the end justifies the means.

Kate Baucherel is a director of UK-based software startup Ambix, a qualified accountant with 25 years’ experience across a variety of industries, and an experienced digital marketer. She is the author of Poles Apart: Challenges for business in the digital age, and works with businesses of all sizes to help them use the internet effectively to achieve their goals. She has two young children, and lives in the north of England.

One Response to “High-resolution satellites: are our privacy expectations too high?”

  1. Conn says:

    Thank you Kate Somebody needed to – you -have been brave enough to open the discussion. I wonder if we have got the scale and scope of this problem properly dimensioned though, come the IOT, how will the problems and possibilities multiply?Are ordinary folk being equipped with the knowledge and awareness to make their own preferences and requirements known? Are security systems adequate and sufficient to prevent the malicious exploitation of such data and if they’re not, is there not a great risk that the exponential rate of exploitation by criminals will quickly outweigh even the very real benefits possible for the many..?

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