A company called Remote Sensing Metrics is buying satellite pictures from privately owned satellite photography companies including DigitalGlobe and GeoEye, counting cars in Wal-Mart parking lots, then selling analysis of the data to hedge funds and other analysts. They're selling it as a discreet package billed as "satellite parking lot fill rate analysis."
Other firms are monitoring crops to better predict commodity pricing for wheat, corn and so on.
The NYPD already uses satellite imagery for crime fighting. They track crimes, look for clusters where many crimes are occurring together, then flood those locations with police officers.
Taking it to the next level
Those all sound like legitimate and creative uses for new technology. But where is it all going?
Once you combine all-seeing satellite imagery with sophisticated computerized number-crunching, you end up with massive potential for abuse -- especially by government agencies.
One might imagine a dystopian future where automated systems constantly scan every house in the country for all kinds of violations, from heat escaping the house to backyard barbecues to the counting of people coming and going from every house.
It's the ol' slippery slope argument, but it must be taken seriously. If it's OK for a town government to peek into every backyard in Riverhead to find a handful of pool-permit violators, why would it not be acceptable for other agencies to look at all homes and businesses in the nation for a much wider variety of potential violations.
And if it's OK to do that using satellite imagery, what about using other technologies?
A company called American Science and Engineering sells a high-end, tricked out security vehicle called the Z Backscatter Van. Its sole purpose, if used by government agencies, is to violate the 4th Amendment.
The van sits there by the side of the road and X-rays cars passing by. It's like a full-body scan at the airport, but for cars. The manufacturer brags about the fact that the van keeps a "low profile." The Web site says: "The system is unobtrusive, as it maintains the outward appearance of an ordinary van."
What the van does is unreasonable searches without probable cause and without the knowledge of the person who owns the property being searched. That's its only function.
Private companies and your privacy
American Science and Engineering would no doubt argue that they're selling it to private companies, which raises yet another question. Is it acceptable for private companies to do what would be a 4th Amendment violation if it were done by a government agency?
Private security companies can't search your home without a warrant, and they can't pull you over and search your car. So why can they search your car with an X-ray scanner?
Sign up for CIO Asia eNewsletters.