Yet I also imagine a dystopian not-so-distant future where we can direct very high-resolution satellites to any point on Earth, easily identifying a person’s location or activities. Who will have access to this data? The police? Politicians looking for dirt on their opponents, or angry spouses with a vendetta? How will this data be used in courts — and who can be trusted to interpret it? The thought of potential misuses is chilling.
Rapid imaging of Earth’s surface is already underway. Small satellites called doves allow for consistent location imaging. These, alongside NASA and commercial satellites, track illegal logging and fishing operations. By 2021, Maxar Technologies, a space technology company, will be able to take snapshots of the same location every 20 minutes. This development has so much potential to do good. I find myself torn between being an enthusiastic remote-sensing scientist and an anthropologist who would never take a photo of anyone, anywhere, without permission.
We need to start conversations now about who and what should be imaged from space — and about how to create ways for Indigenous people or governments to ask for their sacred or sensitive spaces to be respected.