Global Surveillance

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Global Surveillance

Global Surveillance

It has repeatedly been written that "information is power." Throughout history, the fate of nations has repeatedly hinged on the quality and timeliness of intelligence gathering and analysis. During a military or economic confrontation, knowing the capability of a friend or foe often means the difference between success and failure. Even during peacetime, global surveillance systems are utilized for verification purposes, preventing potentially dangerous conflicts.

The Space Age and Surveillance: A New Era

The onward march of technology has continued to drive intelligence gathering and surveillance. With the advent of the electronics and aerospace industries, the technology of intelligence gathering and analysis encountered significant change during the twentieth century. Declassified imagery and technology is now trickling down to private citizens and organizations outside the government.

The Space Age dawned in 1957, when the former Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first artificial object to be placed in orbit around Earth. Since then, space has played a dominant role in global communication and surveillance. Space lets us see the planet in its entirety, or zoom in to examine select portions of the globe. Because of its numerous advantages, space has been accurately nicknamed the new "High Ground."

Space reconnaissance satellites are small, unmanned spacecraft fitted with cameras, sensors, radio receivers, and small rocket motors for maneuvering. They are generally launched into orbit atop a rocket booster or via one of the U.S. space shuttles. Once they are in orbit, they activate cameras, sensors, and receivers to begin their mission. Flight controllers on the ground can program the satellite to perform specific surveillance tasks, or to change the orbit to satisfy the requirements of the mission.

The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) is responsible for designing, building, and flying space satellites for the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The NRO was declassified in 1992, making 800,000 satellite reconnaissance photos available to the National Archives and placing them in the public domain.

Satellites are designed and built to accomplish specific missions including communications, weather forecasting, photographic reconnaissance, remote sensing, and signals intelligence. There are two basic types of satellites: those that perform their mission in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and those that operate in the higher geo-stationary orbit (GSO). Low Earth Orbit is the region of space from about 322 to 805 kilometers (200 miles to 500 miles) above the Earth's surface. Geo-stationary orbit is much higher, and is located at an altitude of 36,210 kilometers (22,500 miles) above Earth. Satellites in GSO always remain over the same point on the ground, and take 24 hours for one orbit, while those in LEO move from horizon to horizon as they orbit once every 90 minutes. For this reason, satellites in geo-stationary orbit can be permanently "parked" over a city or other fixed point on the surface. Satellites in LEO do not stay over one point all the time, and are much closer to the planet. Satellites in LEO are able to photograph very detailed images of the surface, as well as closely intercept other forms of signal intelligence.

Geographic Information Systems

Maps have long been a vital tool for exploring the globe and its physical resources. Geographic Information Systems (GIS) have their roots in traditional map making, but they offer a much higher degree of analysis and efficiency for the user. GIS systems are electronic databases containing maps of the Earth's surface, and are capable of providing advanced imagery and other information. GIS systems receive data from aircraft or space satellites. Because the electronic maps can be searched and sorted to provide solutions to questions and to solve real world problems, they are useful in many different disciplines.

GIS systems can display data in a wide variety of formats according to user needs. Maps containing diverse data can be superimposed to show trends or to assist with prediction making. A time component can also be added to the information to determine future cause and effects. GIS systems can thus provide information for a diverse assortment of users: resource managers, development planners, environmentalists, and even emergency response personnel.

Recently declassified photographic intelligence from orbiting space satellites has been used to show the changes over time to the Antarctic ice flow. Using satellite imagery taken over multiple decades, scientists have been able to determine the patterns of ice flow on a continental scale. The declassified photographs have shown that the Antarctic ice is flowing at a different rate than had previously been assumed.

The Global Positioning System

The Global Positioning System (GPS) is an important technology that aids a wide variety of users. The system consists of a string of Earth-orbiting satellites that beam signals to ground-based receivers. The receivers translate the signals into exact time and location coordinates, showing the position of the user on the ground. The system was first developed for the U.S. military, but a civilian version is also available. The civilian GPS system is somewhat less accurate than the military version. Applications for GPS systems include navigation, scientific research, vehicle tracking, precision farming, map making, and the creation of travel aids for visually impaired persons.

CCTV Systems

Closed Circuit Television (CCTV) systems are used for a variety of security and surveillance-related applications. CCTV systems consist of video cameras that connect to video monitoring or recording equipment. These systems transmit images in real time to remote video monitors or recorders. Some CCTV systems are equipped with microphones, allowing them to transmit audio in addition to the video signal. CCTV systems are used by civil governments to oversee traffic and for security monitoring of public spaces. Home and business owners employ CCTV systems to monitor private property. CCTV systems can operate in a wireless mode, and can be monitored and controlled over standard computer networks or the Internet.

Surveillance and American Society

The power gained from global surveillance technology was once the private domain of rich and powerful governments, but now much of the technology belongs to private citizens as well. Consumer-oriented surveillance equipment empowers groups of users including automobile drivers, boaters, pilots, scientists, students, environmentalists, hobbyists, farmers, engineers, and persons with disabilities. Declassified reconnaissance photographs have helped environmentalists and scientists uncover the truth about the planet's ecology and biosphere. Surveillance technology permits the identification of threats from potential adversaries to prevent conflicts before they occur.

Civil libertarians claim that surveillance technology may impede personal privacy, and many are concerned that the technology may be turned on the civilian population by a tyrannical regime. However, members of the intelligence community maintain that surveillance technology is vital for national security.

In the classic novel 1984, author George Orwell described a tyrannical government run by "Big Brother" that routinely spied on its citizens, forcing personal freedom to fall by the wayside, reminding some critics of the following statement by Benjamin Franklin on freedom: "They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety." Democratic societies such as the United States will continue to struggle to use surveillance technology to ensure domestic security while guarding against the possibility that such technology could be used to eliminate the very personal freedoms they wish to protect.

see also Geographic Information Systems; Global Positioning Systems; Privacy; Security.

Joseph J. Lazzaro


Bamford, James. The Puzzle Palace. New York: Penguin Books, 1983.

Clarke, Arthur C. "Extra-terrestrial Relays." Wireless World, October (1945): 305308.

Orwell, George. 1984. New York: New American Library Classics, 1990.

Internet Resources

Central Intelligence Agency. <>

National Reconnaissance Office. <>

National Security Agency. <>

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Global Surveillance

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