Private Spy in the Sky: Military Technology Goes Commercial

House-hunting may be a bit different next year. Instead of spending hours in a car looking for a home close to the school, the grocery store, and the office, you can quickly narrow your search to the perfect location from the comfort of your realtor's office - courtesy of the latest satellite photos.

Thanks to the launch of the first commercial US spy satellite this spring, and the launch of others later in the year, this spy technology - previously only available through the government - will be available to the masses.

Two Colorado companies, EarthWatch Inc., and Space Imaging, are sending up satellites this year. They are banking on the fact that people who previously thought of satellites only when they turned on the Weather Channel will pay for the conveniences their satellites bring.

Other companies are also eager to get in on what many experts believe may be a $4 billion-a-year industry. A dozen satellites could go up in the next 10 years.

But many fear the consequences of commercializing a technology that can take pictures of you while you're in the garden watering your daisies.

"Privacy, censorship, and copyright are some of the very important legal issues that face this industry," says Christopher Simpson, a communications professor at American University in Washington. And if entered into the courtroom, satellite images are likely to raise new legal questions, says Alan Chen, a law professor at the University of Denver.

"The government should be addressing this now," he says. "Once the genie is released from the bottle, it's too late."

Whether the technology poses a threat to national security is yet another open question. The US military already monitors foreign satellites to avoid practicing maneuvers when satellites are overhead. The government also prohibits commercial satellite companies from dealing with certain countries, including Iraq, Libya, and North Korea, and retains the right to switch off cameras during times of war. Still, some say this may not be enough.

"To say we're going to monitor this - that's a lot easier said than done," says Bob Lawrence, a political science professor at Colorado State University in Fort Collins and a national security specialist. "The countries we want to screen out can easily put up front organizations."

But for now, the desire to keep the US competitive in this emerging consumer market has won out. France, Russia, Brazil, and India have a head start - they are already operating civilian spy craft. The Clinton administration only gave the go-ahead in 1994. Almost three years later, American companies are now ready to enter the fray.

At first, as much as half of this money will come from foreign governments that can't afford their own reconnaissance programs. But Jeffrey Harris, president of Space Imaging, likens satellite imaging to the Internet, saying the number of people who use it will go through the roof.

"Ten years from now, people will use these images in their daily lives to make everyday decisions." says Mr. Harris.

The satellites will allow farmers to check the condition of their crops miles away without having to climb on a tractor. Consumers will be able to purchase archived photos of virtually any location on earth for as little as $25 per image. Road-building, laying utility lines, managing natural resources, and identifying flood plains will also be easier and less expensive as satellites are commercialized.

Even Mr. Lawrence of Colorado State says the uses of US commercial satellites are appealing: "In balance, the benefits outweigh the risks."

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