Domestic Spy Satellite Program Halted on Privacy Fears

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has opted to postpone the planned opening of its new National Applications Office (NAO) that would oversee the expanded use of spy satellite imagery of American territories, the agency announced Monday. The NAO had been scheduled to start operations on Oct. 1.

The decision came after the agency received several requests from the Homeland Security Committee to delay the start of the program until questions concerning its impact on privacy and civil liberties as well as the legal basis for the program have been addressed.

“While we are pleased by the Department’s decision to go back to the drawing board and get it right, we are troubled by its silence on the second part of our request: that Congress also be provided ‘a full opportunity to review the NAO’s written legal framework, offer comments and help shape appropriate procedures and protocols,'” said Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.), Chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security.

Right Direction

Lisa Graves, deputy director at the Center for National Security Studies, told TechNewsWorld she was “glad to see that [the NOA] was not launched on Oct. 1, as planned by the administration” following her testimony during committee hearings held in September. Graves had called upon Congress to block the implementation of the program.

“The postponement of the program is very important from a civil liberties standpoint because the administration had planned to proceed unilaterally and without critically important protections for individual rights,” she explained.

“Congress should be commended for standing up to the Administration over the president’s big brother in the sky plan to direct spy satellites inward on the American People,” Graves concluded.

Government Peepers

On its Web site, the DHS says the National Applications Office serves as the “executive agent to facilitate the use of intelligence community technological assets for civil and homeland security and law enforcement purposes” inside the U.S. The new agency will take over the work of the Civil Applications Committee created in 1974 based on recommendations from the Rockefeller Commission to facilitate the use of the capabilities of the intelligence community for civil, non-defense purposes. Those uses, heretofore, have been restricted to monitoring the weather as well as climatic changes and making maps.

With the NAO, the Bush Administration would expand civilian access to images collected by satellites monitoring the U.S. and its territories. The NAO would act as the middleman between the DHS and local civilian authorities, coordinating the requests for information. Agencies at the local level, including emergency response organizations, border control and law enforcement, would benefit from increased access to a collection of data, analysis and production skills and capabilities of the intelligence community, according the DHS.

It would enhance intelligence, information sharing and dissemination to federal state and local government and law enforcement users. More specifically, the DHS has said the program would be a boon for law enforcement and border security as it could be put to use to track illegal immigrants and drug smugglers crossing into the U.S. as well as be of assistance in the aftermath of natural disasters.

Off-Label Usage

The only problem with the DHS scenario, Christopher Simpson told TechNewsWorld, is that the types of surveillance satellites the DHS planned to use “have almost no legitimate law enforcement applications.” Simpson is the director of Satellite Imagery and the News Media project American University.

“To the extent that they have any legitimate applications, it is [an] extraordinarily expensive and ass-backwards way to use them,” he said. “The reason for that is the characteristic of the technology itself because what those satellites are very good for are looking at big things that don’t move or don’t move very much.”

The satellites work best when they are used to take images of military sites and battleships to provide details such as the types of weaponry they have or the number of troops stationed there.

“Because the satellites move and don’t just sit in one spot in the sky, they cannot be relied upon to see people, for example, crossing the border, even if they might be theoretically capable of seeing people on the ground,” Simpson pointed out. “They are not there when the police want them. So for police applications they have almost no value.”

Rights Versus Satellites

Privacy rights activists also see value in the DHS’s decision to put off the implementation of the program as an opportunity to teach members of Congress and American about the specifics of the program and review its potential impact on privacy and civil liberties.

“The decision to hold up the program to review its implications for privacy was the right move,” Gregory Nojeim, senior counsel and director of the Project on Freedom, Security and Technology at the Center for Democracy & Technology, told TechNewsWorld. “Privacy considerations should have been part of the program at the outset.”

That’s because the technologies the DHS is contemplating using could be very invasive and could even include the ability to gain information on what is happening inside a building using electro-magnetic information, he explained.

“It is important for Congress to think twice before turning such potentially invasive technology designed for use against enemies, against Americans,” Nojeim stated.

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