The Bush administration has decided to expand the government's use of information from U.S. spy satellites for homeland security and domestic law-enforcement purposes. Officials say the change is intended primarily to help them monitor the borders and coastal areas. But it is also raising some serious privacy concerns.
For more than 30 years, domestic agencies have had access to images gathered by U.S. spy satellites. But for the most part, the information has been used for scientific research or to monitor things such as hurricanes and volcanic activity.
Since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, however, intelligence officials have talked about how that information might also be used to help tighten domestic security. Three months ago, National Intelligence Director Michael McConnell authorized his department to make it easier for civilian agencies and law enforcement to access the spy satellite network.
The decision occurred in late May, though it has only come to light recently, and was first reported in The Wall Street Journal. This fall, a new office will be set up inside the Homeland Security Department to act as a clearinghouse for all domestic agencies wanting to use spy satellite data.
Charles Allen, who heads intelligence activities for the Department of Homeland Security, says the satellite images have a lot of potential uses, especially when it comes to protecting the border and securing the nation's ports. He says the images can also be used to monitor security at major infrastructure sites, such as bridges and dams.
Allen says there will be guidelines on how the information can be used, and what legal requirements must be met.
"This is not going to be anything unusual," Allen says. "It's going to be simply an expansion of current activities and a more formalized way of doing some of the things that have been done ad hoc."
Allen says he hopes next year to expand use of the imagery — on what he calls a limited case-by-case basis — to domestic law-enforcement. That change has privacy advocates especially worried.
"We're talking about using very powerful technology directed on American soil," says Jim Dempsey, policy director at the Center for Democracy and Technology.
"It will inevitably pick up information about U.S. citizens and that's what calls for protection under the Constitution. That's what calls for judicial review and a real search warrant."
Dempsey says it's not at all clear what systems will be put in place to prevent abuse.
Stephen Aftergood, who directs the Project on Government Secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists, says it might make sense to use spy satellites to protect the country, but that the increase in government authority and intelligence should be balanced by an increase in oversight. "And right now, the oversight capability seems a bit anemic."
Aftergood noted the recent decision by Congress to extend the administration's ability to conduct warrantless wiretaps. But Allen, of Homeland Security, says Americans have nothing to worry about. He says his operation will be overseen by government auditors, as well as by Congress.
Keith Hall, former Director of the National Reconnaissance Office, which operates the spy satellites, says there's another reason people shouldn't be overly concerned.
"The capabilities we're talking about here really cannot be used to target an individual..." Hall says. "You just can do so much when you're 200 miles up in space in terms of what you can discern about what's going on on the face of the Earth."
Hall headed a 2005 study that recommended exactly what the government is now doing. He says that even with the limitations, spy satellites can be a very effective tool when trying to monitor activity at remote areas of the border, or to find potential evacuation routes during disasters.