April 3, 2008
US Homeland Security overlord Michael Chertoff has told reporters that he believes plans for increased use of satellite surveillance by American law-enforcement agencies are ready to move forward. However, Democratic politicians remain unconvinced that adequate privacy and civil liberties safeguards are in place.
“I think the way is now clear to stand NAO up and go warm,” said Chertoff, briefing journalists about the proposed National Applications Office.
NAO would allow US police, immigration, drug-enforcement and other officials to have access to data from various US satellites passing above America. It is understood that the information would be supplied mostly by spacecraft which at the moment are used for meteorological and geological surveying, or other scientific tasks. Satellites of this type can often deliver high-resolution images which would also be useful to law enforcement.
Purpose-built US surveillance satellites operated on behalf of military and intelligence agencies also pass above the US frequently. However, even the location of such spacecraft is often deemed to be a secret - for all that it may be well-known to amateur skywatchers. The capabilities of the true spybirds are even more jealously guarded, but realistically this information would soon become common knowledge if ordinary coppers were able to get such imagery.
Therefore, the new NAO probably won’t offer very wide access - if any - to America’s proper sky-spies. But it could provide a wealth of information all the same, and some US legislators are concerned about the implications.
Chertoff pooh-poohed such worries, saying that detailed assessments had been done and that Congresspersons had been briefed. The DHS chief believed that there’s a “good process in place to make sure there aren’t any… transgressions”. The DHS has also pointed out that various feds including the Secret Service* and FBI have used satellite imagery of the US in various previous investigations on a case-by-case basis.
Even so, plans for warm erection of the NAO could face a bumpy ride from Democrat-dominated committees on Capitol Hill.
Coverage of the press briefing is available from CNET here. ®
*Note for non-US readers: While “Secret Service” sounds like it might be to do with spies, this is not the case in the States. The Secret Service is part of the Treasury, and does things like tracking down counterfeiters. It also provides the bodyguards for prominent US politicians, like the specialist protection branch of the Met Police in the UK. It seems that the Treasury agents were the main federal law-enforcement agency in existence when US presidents started to need close protection, and got the job by default.