In centuries past, governments, both good and bad, could hide secret projects and troop movements from prying eyes. Armies would fight over mountaintops or float balloons to get a visual advantage.
The airplane changed the rules of the game. Spies on the ground could locate a target; reconnaissance planes could then photograph it. But both balloons and aircraft could be brought down by ground fire.
Today, spy satellites are (so far) beyond the reach of ground-based weapons. US surveillance ability was a big trump in the Gulf War and Kosovo. Arms-control agreements rely on each side's confidence that it can verify what the other side is up to.
With the Sept. 24 launch of Space Imaging Inc.'s IKONOS-2 satellite, photography once available only to intelligence agencies will be on sale by year's end to the public, the media, and anyone else willing to pay. The detail in these photos - showing objects as small as one yard wide - goes far beyond anything viewers have yet seen on their TV screens or the Internet.
And that makes American national-security officials antsy. They worry that a potential enemy or terrorist group could obtain useful information to plan attacks or defend against US military strikes.
In 1994 President Clinton ordered private satellite companies to submit to "shutter control." That is, the government could prohibit photography when it jeopardizes national security or foreign policy. The restrictions allow the United States Commerce secretary to ban certain photography after consulting with the secretaries of State and Defense.
That means that if, say, the secretary of State decided it would harm Sino-American relations to photograph tanks approaching a Tiananmen Square protest, such pictures could be kept off American TV news broadcasts.
Those rules are too severe and the decisionmaking process too secret. Some suggest the president should make the decision based on defined standards. Others propose review instead by a government-appointed board. We'd prefer in most instances that the government make its case in a court of law that publication or broadcast of satellite photos constitutes a clear and present danger.
Complicating the issue is that similar photos may well be available from foreign satellite companies even when US firms are forbidden to sell theirs.
However the matter is resolved, it's yet another example of technology outrunning the ability of governments to control information. That's a far bigger threat to the totalitarian governments of the world than it will ever be to a democracy.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society