India is investing massively in surveillance equipment both at national level and within the country, Video surveillance is expanding in cities, and it is also putting R&D and operational funds into major projects like a new mountain-top border radar system and now, a satellite platform that, it is claimed, will be “fitted with an intelligent sensor that will pick up conversations and communications across the borders.” Presumably this means a system rather like the US satellites that have been in operation since the 1980s that ‘vacuum’ up microwave communications signals from mobile telephones, rather than some kind of impossibly powerful microphone! Interestingly the story in the Hindu continually refers to the new devices, whether they be radar or satellites, as “network-centric”, and is peppered with references to “electronic warfare”, showing that Indian military planners have almost entirely swallowed US strategic doctrines that emerged from the 1990s. With the USA now operating openly in Pakistan, the source of recent terrorist raids into India, and tensions ratcheting up with China, it seems that the US is backing India as its major regional partner, or at least that India is aping US methods.
A great graphic from Michael Paukner on Flickr of all the world’s satellites, working and defunct, plus debris, by country. Interestingly, China and France appear to the worst litterers of space as a proportion of the amount of stuff they have up there. Russia have the most out of commission satellites and the USA (not surprisingly) have the most working devices. Of course, this graphic doesn’t distinguish civil from military, nor say what are their functions, but the sheer amount of stuff in orbit indicates why there will be serious conflict over the use of orbital space soon enough…
My headline is a slightly more accurate version of the way that news of the new ‘Space Fence’ system has been headlined, for example here in Computerworld. The Space Fence system, whose first stage is a $30 Million US project for Northrop-Grumman, will replace a 1961 VHF radio infrastructure known as the Air Force Space Surveillance System built in 1961.
Although the spin is that the system is all about tracking space debris, this is actually part of the DoD’s satellite tracking operations – which certainly does cover debris, insofar as they are a threat to US satellites, but is also crucially to make sure that an accurate picture of the increasing number of smaller ‘micro-satellites’ from an every-expanding number of countries can be obtained. In that sense, this program is indeed a ‘fence’, a further attempt to enforce the notion that space is effectively US territory.
The complex landscape of the US judicial system has thrown up a ruling on the police use of GPS tracking devices completely at odds with the recent ruling handed down by the appeals court in Wisconsin. The New York appeals court ruled 4-3 that police GPS tracking should require a warrant. Judge Lipmann’s words on the case, quoted by the New York Times, are particularly interesting as it appears that he wa taking a long view of potential harm in making his decision. He said:
“One need only consider what the police may learn, practically effortlessly, from planting a single device. The whole of a person’s progress through the world, into both public and private spatial spheres, can be charted and recorded over lengthy periods possibly limited only by the need to change the transmitting unit’s batteries. Disclosed in the data retrieved from the transmitting unit, nearly instantaneously with the press of a button on the highly portable receiving unit, will be trips the indisputably private nature of which takes little imagination to conjure: trips to the psychiatrist, the plastic surgeon, the abortion clinic, the AIDS treatment center, the strip club, the criminal defense attorney, the by-the-hour motel, the union meeting, the mosque, synagogue or church, the gay bar and on and on. What the technology yields and records with breathtaking quality and quantity, is a highly detailed profile, not simply of where we go, but by easy inference, of our associations — political, religious, amicable and amorous, to name only a few — and of the pattern of our professional and avocational pursuits. When multiple GPS devices are utilized, even more precisely resolved inferences about our activities are possible. And, with GPS becoming an increasingly routine feature in cars and cell phones, it will be possible to tell from the technology with ever increasing precision who we are and are not with, when we are and are not with them, and what we do and do not carry on our persons — to mention just a few of the highly feasible empirical configurations.”
This long term thinking has to be applauded. Sometimes imagination is necessary in the law, and particularly when the issue is one of socio-technical changes. The technological determinism of ‘if it exists, then it must be used’ is a way of thinking that has to be challenged. The question now for the USA is if either of these case or others will find their way to the federal courts. Until then, US citizens and police do not really know where they stand and the constitutional questions remain open.
India has launched its first major military surveillance satellite, RISAT-2, a platform for high-resolution Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR), which puts it up there with the kind of things that the USA were launching over 10 years ago. Of course although, as The Times of India comment shows, being part of the club of orbital space powers is a consideration, the main motivations are most immediately, dealing with the threat of Pakistani Islamic extremists, and in the long term, regional competition with China, which has its own active satellite launch (and satellite-killing) program. One thing which about which the paper is entirely correct is that Indian high tech is more advanced than China’s and this home-grown satellite marks a small but significant shift in global surveillance power towards India. Whether, for a country still struggling with massive poverty and inequality, it is what anyone ‘needs’ or is any more than an expensive strategic symbol is another question.