The US government is to allow mapping sites to use more detailed satellite images. It could lead to more disputes about personal and corporate privacy and national security.
Until now, companies using satellites could only publish pictures at a resolution that meant items or features had to be at least 50 centimeters across to be distinguishable. Following these rules is part of the conditions of US firms being able to launch satellites.
Imaging at greater resolution is allowed, but firms have to use other methods of collecting images, such as airplanes or balloons.
However, satellite imaging firm Digital Globe has revealed that it’s been given immediate permission to go down to 40 centimeters. The firm also says that it’s been told that six months after it launches its next satellite, due in August, the threshold will drop to 25 centimeters. (The satellite, pictured above, will actually fall a little short of that as it can operate at a resolution of 31 centimeters.)
Digital Globe noted the improved resolution is the equivalent of moving from satellite imagery being able to identify the presence of an individual car to being able to distinguish the car’s make.
The US Commerce Department, which issues the relevant license, hasn’t yet publicly commented on the changes. That means its not officially confirmed, though is widely assumed, that the new limits will apply to all firms that meet all other criteria.
Such a change of policy would be particularly welcome news for Google, which recently spent $500 million buying out satellite imaging firm Skybox, which currently targets businesses looking to get real-time economic data covering everything from stock levels in oil reserves to the number of cars parked in the lots of national chains. For now Google says it will use Skybox to improve Google Maps and as a way to assist in disaster relief programs.