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Human rights: Use satellite "spy" camera for proof and prevention

From a giant "SOS" carved on the ground in Kyrgyzstan to mortar-shell spray in Sri Lanka, human rights can be served by a satellite "spy" camera for proof and prevention of atrocities.

By / Correspondent / April 13, 2011

Digitally enhanced satellite image highlights oil and dispersants in the clean-up effort after the BP oil spill on the Gulf Coast last year.

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As Sri Lankan infantry cornered the last of the Tamil Tigers in May 2009, another plot was unfolding 9,000 miles away. Lars Bromley was pulling 15-hour days as he watched the conflict unfold from a different perspective: that of satellites peering down from 450 miles above.

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In a Washington, D.C., lab he scrolled through digital satellite photos measuring 16 feet by 16 feet as part of the Science and Human Rights Program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Mr. Bromley, a geographer, hoped to determine whether the Sri Lankan Army was attacking a civilian safety zone.

Each pixel on the photos represented 20 inches, so the photos weren't sufficiently fine-grain to reveal corpses. But Bromley and his co-workers spied other damage: buildings shattered by artillery shells, and mortar craters pocking the sand in places where refugees had previously gathered. Elsewhere, the rectangular grids of Tamil Tiger cemeteries grew from one day's photo to the next, revealing dozens of new graves.

The Sri Lankan government denied targeting civilian areas. The fact that information still got out so quickly from a region off-limits to outsiders is testament to a growing truth: From Google Earth to GPS to spycraft, satellites make the world more accessible than ever.

Private satellites have carried telecommunications for decades. But since 1999, nearly a dozen commercial imaging satellites with photographic resolutions between 6 feet and 20 inches have launched into orbit. Companies using the satellites sell imagery to governments; private companies in agriculture, urban planning, and telecommunications; and – most recently – to environmental and human rights organizations.

Worldview 1, a satellite built by the Colorado-based company Digital Globe, supplied much of the imagery that Bromley used in Sri Lanka. Worldview 1 orbits Earth at 17,000 m.p.h. and photographs a 10-mile by 60-mile strip of land at 20-inch resolution in 25 seconds, capturing 150,000 square miles every day.

AAAS's first satellite project in 2005 documented home demolitions by the regime of the dictator Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. A project in 2007 revealed the burning of hundreds of villages in Darfur. Others have investigated abuses in Burma (Myanmar), Gaza, North Korea, Ethiopia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. And as the Arab Spring unfolds with spurts of violence, people at human rights organizations are reviewing imagery from Libya, Egypt, and other locations.

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