FSG Blog
April 21, 2012

The Future Is Now: Reading VINs from Space

From this morning’s New York Times, proof that in some areas the future has already arrived:

“American commercial satellite companies now produce images of even higher resolution than they are permitted to sell publicly, and their only customers are United States government agencies or foreign government, with American approval. Commercial satellites can show, for example, an image of a specific vehicle type or spare tire on a truck, while the more sensitive government-owned satellites can detect gun mounts or vehicle identification numbers.

“The intelligence community uses even higher resolution imagery for tasks like monitoring the North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs, but the commercial satellites are adequate for almost all the needs of the military.”

The major questions going forward, for those of us who spend much of our time writing scenarios of the future, is whether space-based photography or earthbound reconnaissance are the wave of the future.  Satellites would seem to have reached an almost ridiculous level of resolution, but face recognition would have to be replaced by scalp (or hat?) recognition, and the angle of view would not seem to be optimal for many purposes. And UAVs are getting smaller and smaller, and according to academics such as UCLA’s John Villasenor, long before the end of the decade they could be all but invisible to human eyes. Why go to the expense of putting something into orbit when you can simply unleash a swarm of flying microdots with cameras aboard?

The second question going forward might be, who’s doing this surveillance, and for what reason? Is it governments, non-governmental political or military actors, the private sector (retailers or consumer product companies looking to see what brand of conditioner you are really using), or even your neighbors?

(What if it’s Mom?)

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