When Eyes in the Sky Start Looking Right at You

For decades, privacy experts have been wary of snooping from space. They feared satellites powerful enough to zoom in on individuals, capturing close-ups that might differentiate adults from children or suited sunbathers from those in a state of nature.

Now, quite suddenly, analysts say, a startup is building a new class of satellite whose cameras would, for the first time, do just that.

“We’re acutely aware of the privacy implications,” Topher Haddad, head of Albedo Space, the company making the new satellites, said in an interview. His company’s technology will image people but not be able to identify them, he said. Albedo, Mr. Haddad added, was nonetheless taking administrative steps to address a wide range of privacy concerns.

Anyone living in the modern world has grown familiar with diminishing privacy amid a surge security cameras, trackers built into smartphones, facial recognition systems, drones and other forms of digital monitoring. But what makes the overhead surveillance potentially scary, experts say, is its ability to invade areas once seen as intrinsically off limits.

“This is a giant camera in the sky for any government to use at any time without our knowledge,” said Jennifer Lynch, general counsel of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who in 2019 urged civil satellite regulators to address this issue. “We should definitely be worried.”

Against that concern, Mr. Haddad and other supporters of Albedo’s technology say real benefits must be weighed, especially when it comes to fighting disasters and saving lives.

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