Satellite system for detecting human rights abuses may also provide help to attackers
The Satellite Sentinel Project, a constellation of high-powered satellites trained to find atrocities on the ground with a half-metre resolution, was set up in 2009 to find human rights abuses in the conflict in Sudan. Conceived by former Clinton administration State department staffer John Prendergast and the actor George Clooney, the system collectively orbits the Earth 45 times a day and by using eight different spectral bands can "see" through both darkness and clouds. By 2011, the ability to predict conflict enabled the system to issue warnings that allow civilians to flee incoming attacks. However, the real-time feedback loop this created makes the satellite system an active participant: reporting what it sees may help attackers to refine their plans and improve their ability to hit their targets.
The experience has raised questions about the boundaries of providing a mapping service: is it human rights advocacy or humanitarian necessity? When the population begins to rely on the system to make life-critical decisions, the relationship between them and the system providers changes.
Writer: Ian Daly
Publication date: 2013-03-19