Satellites Are Now Cleared to Take Photos at Mailbox-Level Detail

The Department of Commerce just lifted a ban on satellite images that showed features smaller than 20 inches. The nation's largest satellite imaging firm, Digital Globe, asked the government to lift the restrictions and can now sell images showing details as small as a foot. A few inches may seem slight, but this is actually a big deal.

Thanks to the new ruling, Digital Globe says it'll be able to show "key features such as manholes and mailboxes." That's not exactly Enemy of the State style surveillance capabilities, but it does make it possible to use satellite imaging instead of aerial photography for things like monitoring agriculture and disaster relief. Jobs that we thought would be handed off to drones could actually go to satellites instead.

Of course, there is some concern over privacy. Sharper satellite images also mean people will be able to see people more easily and better discern details of private property. At least one information law expert says there are there are "national security considerations" at stake.

But the country's leaders who support higher resolution imaging suggest that the opposite is true. Sen. Mark Udall says that if we didn't green light sharper satellite images, a foreign company would've. Udall argues that the Commerce Department's decision will "allow industry to build and deploy systems capable of best meeting our national security needs and retaining U.S. leadership in a competitive international industry." In other words, it's not just safe but also good for business.

Now that Google's doubled-down on satellite imaging with its $500 million purchase of Skybox, we're surely going to see more eyes in the sky. Skybox itself plans to launch 24 satellites into orbit that can handle high res images. Digital Globe will launch a new satellite in August that will have that manholes-and-mailboxes capabilities. And if you don't like it, well, there's nowhere to run. [BBC]

Image via Google/Gizmodo