It's Finally 1984
By Carlton W. Austin
Well, it may be late, but 1984 has finally arrived. If he's not turning over in his grave, at the very least George Orwell must be enjoying an I-told-you-so smile.
You see, on Friday, September 24,1999, Space Imaging, Inc., a Colorado consortium led by Lockheed Martin, launched a new spy satellite. One with a difference. Whereas the products of Uncle Sam's current spies-in-the-sky are for use by defense and intelligence units of America and our allies--for, we suppose, our mutual defense--, images from this bird will be for sale to you and me and to anyone who can afford the nominal fees, which range from $20 to $300. (Current minimum order $1,000.)
The satellite, named Ikonos, will occupy an orbit 423 miles in space and can resolve images as small as one meter; that's about three feet. While this isn't as good as the military's Keyhole instruments, whose cameras are said to be able to check the color of your eyes, it's far better than anything available today from vendors in India, France, Russia or even the U. S.
Already, Space Imaging has $15 million in orders, and the service hasn't even started yet. Among that impressive backlog is this eager customer: The National Imagery and Mapping Agency, NIMA, the government shop that makes military maps and analyzes current top-secret satellite photos. They'll buy somewhere near $580 million worth over the next six years, according to a report in the Washington Post.
Except for Israel, which lobbied Congress two years ago to exempt it from the "open skies" policy that allows imaging the entire Earth's surface, we are all vulnerable to being eyeballed.
Ah, yes, I hear you saying, so what? Let the rest of the world have the capability. As long as our military SATs are better, we maintain superiority, right? We remain safe from our enemies. Hmmm . . . Wasn’t it Snoopy who said, "We have met the enemy, and he is us"? Isn't this exactly the kind of thing George had in mind when he coined the term Big Brother?
Yes, the world is a cold and dangerous place. And, true, this new capability will be a boon for human rights organizations, MIA groups and the like, who will have a new window on what's going on around the world. Not to mention that news organizations will no longer have to wait for the General's report; they'll make their own battle-damage assessments. But think about this: Now you can buy color pictures of your neighbor's new SUV, or even of your neighbor, as she lies naked by her pool, sunbathing. Okay, you'll have to be lucky to catch her at the right time; but with this thing zooming around the Earth 14 times a day in a sun-synchronous orbit, it can take a picture of any spot on Earth once every three days. Look out Mrs. Robinson!
To lipstick cameras, postage-stamp mikes and ladies named Tripp that gave new meaning to the word "trip-wire," add Ikonos, glowering overhead. It's a wonder people are so concerned about such trivialities as Internet use of "cookies" or shopping by credit card on the Web. After all, your liability for credit card charges you didn't make is only $50. (And your credit card information is at far higher risk every time you give it to the waiter in a restaurant.)
But imagine the psychic cost of having your private parts assayed photographically and offered for sale to the highest bidder on Ebay's auction site by your estranged--and deranged--ex-spouse. Makes you think, doesn't it? Next time you leave your house better make sure you wear your sunglasses, and for heaven's sake, make sure your tie is straight!
But Ikonos isn't the only thing you have to worry about. Big Brother has other new tricks up his sleeve. Consider the advertisement a company named TIME DOMAIN published recently in concert with the first International Ultra Wideband Conference, held in Washington, D.C., September 28-30. In it, TIME DOMAIN promotes a new microchip called PULSON that takes advantage of a technology generated by the Apollo program. (You'll be hearing a lot more about this technology and this company in the future, both here and elsewhere.)
Known as "radio pulse," the technology allows "...huge amounts of data [to be] transmitted without interfering with other radio frequencies, creating amazing new possibilities in low-cost voice and data communications, personal radar and precise positioning." (Italics mine.)
The company has actually produced a hand-held radar unit that can see through walls, ostensibly to allow police to scope out a room before barging in (you do have a warrant, don't you, officer?), or perhaps to allow firefighters to do the same in a burning building, thus preventing them from being put at risk unnecessarily. These are laudable uses. But how long will it take before X-ray-vision glasses, like those that used to be advertised in the back of Popular Mechanics, become a reality? If we're all going to be Superman, you'd better stock up on your Kryptonite now! (The company also boasts the ability to track the "...precise location of people, shipments and assets...within an inch.")
So will Friday, September 24, 1999, be remembered as the day we all got access to cheap pictures from space? Or will it be remembered as the day 1984 finally arrived? -- C. W. Austin
Editor’s note, May 2013.... If you think that this was just a tad prophetic, having been written in 1999, then you should definitely read this: