Thursday, 16 August 2007

Smile! You're on satellite camera

The United States is moving up in the world in terms of state surveillance...

The Bush administration has approved a plan to expand domestic access to some of the most powerful tools of 21st-century spycraft, giving law enforcement officials and others the ability to view data obtained from satellite and aircraft sensors that can see through cloud cover and even penetrate buildings and underground bunkers.

A program approved by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Department of Homeland Security will allow broader domestic use of secret overhead imagery beginning as early as this fall, with the expectation that state and local law enforcement officials will eventually be able to tap into technology once largely restricted to foreign surveillance.

Administration officials say the program will give domestic security and emergency preparedness agencies new capabilities in dealing with a range of threats, from illegal immigration and terrorism to hurricanes and forest fires. But the program, described yesterday by the Wall Street Journal, quickly provoked opposition from civil liberties advocates, who said the government is crossing a well-established line against the use of military assets in domestic law enforcement.

Does its implications against freedom cancel out the good it does for security (see security v. freedom); or is there nothing to worry about? And what is up with the WSJ getting all these major political news scoops?

Although the federal government has long permitted the use of spy-satellite imagery for certain scientific functions -- such as creating topographic maps or monitoring volcanic activity -- the administration's decision would provide domestic authorities with unprecedented access to high-resolution, real-time satellite photos.
Oversight of the department's use of the overhead imagery data would come from officials in the Department of Homeland Security and from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and would consist of reviews by agency inspectors general, lawyers and privacy officers.

No warrants are needed for this kind of spying, and yet it is my personal view that the NSA wiretapping program is probably a larger infringement on civil liberties. However, both these spy programs can be easily abused for political motives because the oversight comes from those within the Bush administration. Many of the people overlooking these spy programs, such as officials in the DHS and DoJ, have already proven themselves to be political appointees, cronies, incompetent yes-men, and by no means objective like they should be. And all they ever seem to want is more power to spy on Americans.

I think it is a good idea to update America's satellite imaging system, just as I believe a FISA for the 21st century was a good goal, but the lack of oversight is alarming for both of these surveillance programs. At least the NSA program will have audits and this new spy program will be reviewed by a number of people who hopefully will prevent abuse of this important and slightly worrying technology. Still, it is up to the courts, Congress, and, ultimately, the people to keep the executive in check, and that includes its more sensitive programs.

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