"We should definitely be worried."

Pandora's Satellite

As surveillance tools advance in both function and ubiquity, an up-and-coming satellite venture company raises an important question: how much of our privacy are we willing to trade for the promise of safety?

A startup called Albedo Space is building low-orbit satellites that are able to zoom in on individual humans down on Earth, The New York Times reports. The venture's cofounders say the satellites won't be equipped with identification-ready facial recognition technology, but they will be able to image people — a massive step forward in satellite-abetted surveillance that could seemingly realize some long-held privacy fears. After all, as far as technological Eyes of Saurons could go, a fleet of all-seeing orbital cameras — which according to the NYT have already inked multiple US defense contracts and garnered over $100 million in funding — feels pretty on the nose.

"This is a giant camera in the sky for any government to use at any time without our knowledge," Jennifer Lynch, general counsel of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told the NYT. "We should definitely be worried."

Weighing Costs

As the NYT notes, Albedo's founders have paid lip service to the privacy concerns for some time now. In a February 2021 post to the forum Hacker News, for instance, Albedo co-founder and CEO Topher Haddad told a concerned netizen that "we are acutely aware of the privacy implications and potential for abuse/misuse."

This seems to be the company line, given that Haddad told the NYT for its 2024 report that "we're acutely aware of the privacy implications." So, acute awareness: check!

Speaking to the NYT, Albedo seemingly took the "but we're saving lives!" line of reasoning, emphasizing that its satellites — which are due to orbit as low as 100 miles off Earth's surface — could be used for purposes like helping authorities map disaster zones. Albedo's website also lists infrastructure monitoring and urban planning as possible applications for the tech, in addition — of course — to a few "defense [and] intelligence" use cases.

While some experts, according to the NYT, agree that the satellites could feasibly be helpful in some scenarios, the privacy concerns are palpable nonetheless. The thought of a tool like this in the hands of a government keen on moral policing, for example, or authorities seeking to crack down on protests, is frightening.

In spite of any benefits, surveillance technology almost always comes at a cost. Per the NYT, Albedo plans to launch its first satellite in 2025, and ultimately hopes to host a fleet of over 20 individual crafts. If and when Albedo's vision comes to pass, the public may well find out just how high its price is.

"It's taking us one step closer," Harvard astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell told the NYT, "to a Big-Brother-is-watching kind of world."

More on surveillance: The NYPD Says It's Going to Spy on Labor Day Parties Using Drones

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