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When Google Earth isn't good enough...

The U.S. government plans to offer military-grade remote-sensing data to police agencies. Good or bad? You decide.

The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post have reported that the U.S. government plans to offer military-grade remote-sensing data to police agencies. (Those links may require registration or disappear entirely; sorry.)

Unlike some, I'm not going to leap to any conclusions about whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. I think that depends on how these data are used. If the observations are reported accurately and not taken out of context, well, they're just facts. Morality lies in how facts are used, not in the mere knowledge of them.

Over time, the U.S. government has gained the ability to monitor international telegrams and telephone calls, then domestic calls, then the Internet (as we're learning in the lawsuits against AT&T and the U.S. government currently being heard in San Francisco; see The New York Times' story). The optical-surveillance capabilities of spy satellites, aircraft and helicopters are fairly well known. Few civilians are happy about all that monitoring, but it's a fact of life.

But what's being discussed here goes well beyond what's generally known. Heck, I don't know the full capabilities of these systems, but I have tried to keep up with what's been publicly described and what's scientifically possible.

The Journal article describes what was a new acronym to me: MASINT, for Measurement and Signatures Intelligence. The story says "According to defense experts, MASINT uses radar, lasers, infrared, electromagnetic data and other technologies to see through cloud cover, forest canopies and even concrete to create images or gather data."

I know some of the technologies being described here. For example, synthetic aperture radar can detect buried and concealed structures. Laser radar can be used the same way in some conditions, with much higher resolution.

The SBIRS (Space-Based Infrared System) program can detect and track just about any activity that produces heat. Hyperspectral imaging captures even more wavelengths of light to detect subtle effects of human activity such as chemical traces. And the government operates electromagnetic surveillance satellites that can monitor cell phone calls and track cell phones whenever they're turned on.

(I will note in passing that many of these techniques were enabled by progress in the microprocessor industry. Always remember this: any tool may be used as a weapon.)

These systems were all designed for military use, but apart from training activities, they have nothing to do while flying over U.S. territory. Finding new work for them is easy enough, and in the current political climate, inevitable. So why haven't they been used for domestic surveillance all along?

Although there are important civil-rights issued involved, I think that security considerations have been the biggest reason that these resources haven't been made available to the police. The problem is that however honorable our police officers are, it hasn't been considered practical to clear them to receive classified information.

There's always a possibility that the information itself, or even just the capabilities of these resources, would be unintentionally disclosed to our nation's enemies. Today, with all the increased federal funding (and therefore federal oversight) of local police agencies, perhaps that judgement is changing.

And there's also the fact that other nations now have similar surveillance capabilities. Some of the surveillance data that would have been highly sensitive 30 years ago is now commonplace--think Google Earth--and I doubt that the most sensitive data will be released to police agencies anyway. There's also likely to be a lot of filtering and analysis so that the police don't get any more data than they actually need.

If this program really gets going, there will be a whole series of changes in the civilian world that will echo those that happened throughout the development of military surveillance and countersurveillance techniques.

Casual pot growers will have yet another reason to insulate their attics. Although the Supreme Court found in 2001, in the case of Kyllo v. United States, that warrantless infrared scanning of private homes was unconstitutional, that case was narrowly decided. Even the majority opinion left room for a future reversal, if this kind of observation becomes "routine," undermining the people's reasonable expectation of privacy in their own homes (see footnote 6).

Really determined smugglers will learn to anticipate spy satellite overflights and hide their activities. Those schedules aren't readily available, but I'm sure that they can be obtained for a price.

There will be court cases aplenty to test the Constitutional and statutory limits to the new uses for all this technology. There will be widely publicized successes, and possibly some cases where these systems will be abused by overzealous investigators. Overall, I doubt that there will be any dramatic improvement in public safety, but I do expect a dramatic increase in public-safety spending.

Eventually, I suspect that the rest of us will just get used to it, as we've gotten used to all those earlier surveillance techniques. That's how governments grow their powers.