When you look up at the sky, remember “they” are watching you. Who are the ubiquitous “they”? Satellites that orbit Earth. Mankind’s eye in the sky located thousands of miles above. In fact, they eavesdrop on conversations, monitor nuclear detonations or broadcast a channel worldwide.
What is a satellite? Technically any object that orbits the earth. Naturally, the moon is the earth’s natural satellite. All satellites consist of three main parts: a metal frame body known as a bus, a power source (either solar or rechargeable battery-powered cells) and an onboard computer controlling the satellite. The computer also manages the attitude control system (ACS). It keeps the satellite pointed in the right direction.
Imagine that you’re a soldier equipped with a phone integrated with the Global Positioning System (GPS). It pinpoints your location.
Circling the World
Satellites have three different orbits: Geostationary, asynchronous and polar. A geostationary satellite stays in the same position while orbiting. In fact, they orbit at altitudes up to 22,223 miles. On the other side, communications, television and weather satellites all use geostationary orbits. A north – south orbit often indicates a spy satellite.
Asynchronous satellites pass overhead at different times of the day. Navigational satellites for the GPS use asynchronous orbits. Specifically, GPS Navstar satellites operate at altitudes of 6,000 to 12,000 miles.
Generally, polar satellites pass over Earth’s poles on each revolution. In fact, they fly at a low altitude. On the other hand, satellites used for mapping and photography work at polar orbits.
Enemies of the States
Enemy of the State was a popular film released in 1998. It starred Will Smith and Gene Hackman. The film’s plot focused on the US government’s use of surveillance technology to hide an assassination. Lawyer Robert Dean (Will Smith) was the unwilling witness. Thus, the government tracked, filmed, wiretapped and bugged Dean to discredit him. These technologies are used against any Enemies of the States.
Wiretapping phone communications involves using a device to access a conversation. The device accesses the call at a point of its physical connection. Eavesdropping techniques on wired and wireless communications are becoming more sophisticated. Tapping wireless communications is almost “invisible”. Combining GPS and wiretapping technology makes eavesdropping and location tracking simple.
In Washington County, US high courts convicted William Bradley Jackson of murdering his 9-year-old daughter Valerie in 1999. A GPS receiver, planted in his car, led police to his daughter’s shallow grave. In fact, the trial raised questions about Jackson’s privacy rights and GPS tracking.
The global positioning system is a constellation of 27 Earth-orbiting satellites. The US military first developed the network before opening it to everyone else. This satellite network maps out locations across the globe. GPS finds your location using a technique called trilateration. Imagine you are somewhere in the Sahara desert with a GPS receiver.
The receiver sends signals to four satellites in different positions. Each satellite measures its distance from your positions. In fact, they map out a sphere to do this. The radius of the sphere is their distance from you. Hence, inside the sphere is your possible location. With this completed, where the four spheres intersect is your exact location.
Intelligence Cycle & Tasking
Tasking is deciding where to point the satellite camera. It’s the first and most difficult step in the intelligence cycle. In military surveillance, tasking is observing enemy movements or sites. Tasking identifies the general proximity of sites rather than their exact location. Tasking focuses on building long lists of “suspect sites” instead of a hierarchy of definite military locations.
In global surveillance, information rotates through an intelligence cycle. Information goes through the following processes: tasking, collection, exploitation and dissemination. More simply stated, establishing what you want to know, collecting the information, determining what you have and informing others about your results.
The intelligence cycle isn’t just an application of technology. Organizations apply technology to their subjective needs. Technology is objective but an organization rarely is.
Collection & Exploitation
Satellites photograph the world. High resolution images from 1 to 2 meters are available publicly. At 1 meter resolution, a satellite 12,000 miles above the earth can watch a man dialing his phone. They sell satellite images for a variety of reasons, from estate management to homeland security.
Exploiting is finding out what you know. In fact, this means photographic interpretation of imagery, i.e. correct identification of enemy headquarters. Photographic interpretation is a highly specialized task. The craft evolved within the American classified intelligence community.
They are able to grade satellite imagery according to a National Imagery Interpretability Rating Scale. You also perform basic photo-interpretation looking out of an airplane.
In 1998, the USA bombed the Al-Shifa medicine factory in Khartoum, Sudan. In fact, the factory was thought to be producing chemical weapons. Actually, misjudgments like this represent a failure in the tasking process. In fact, through exploitation, misidentification is corrected and information gathered made useful.
Satellite imagery has the power to make news instead of just shape news. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, the US Government released selected satellite images to make news. In fact, satellite imagery is accessible commercially. Moreover, it offers the media and others the opportunity to make news.
Additionally, through correct photo-interpretation, these organizations can introduce new facts to the public. As the intelligence and media communities each offer different photo-interpretations, future conflicts will occur.
- Julie K.Petersen, Understanding Surveillance Technologies, 1st Edition, USA, CRC Press LLC, 2001
- GlobalSecurity.org, Public Eye
- Wired Magazine, Cops Challenged on GPS Use
- Gary Brown, How Satellites Work
- DARPA Information Awareness Office, Terrorism Information Awareness System
- BBC, Full text of Powell Speech
- Will Knight, Newscientist.com, US intelligence on Iraq “compelling” but limited
- Marshall Brain and Tom Harris, How GPS Receivers Work
This article is from Science’s archive and we’ve originally published it on an earlier date.