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As the 'next billion' struggle to emerge from India, the lack of tech laws and growth of band-aid technology, have created a unique Chiba. Sentience of the emerging silicon, is tested here

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Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Satellite Imaging and the India Government

Once it was an excuse used by nations to display their technological prowess. There were benign weather reports and malignant military ‘information’ that had to be collected. Satellites could do both. Under firm government control these ‘electric eyes’ were focussed to ‘serve’ the nation. But the internet changed that.

The release of google earth, two years ago altered the government’s hold on satellite imaging. Google earth took satellite photographs of the earth and stitched them to create a virtual globe on the internet. Today satellite imagery has moved away from the hands of governments into the hands of anybody who can access the internet. Now you can zoom into details on the ground with a resolution that goes up to 15m or 1m.

While users have been busy trying to find out what their houses and offices look from the sky, the government has been sweating. Abdul Kalam, the president, has repeatedly expressed his concern of how high resolution pictures can be a useful to terrorists and other miscreants. The Indian government has also approached google to blur satellite images of important buildings and installation, such as the Rashtrapati Bhavan and air force bases.

Yet the Indian government is not the only one that has reacted with panic. The American government has already blurred photographs of its installations and blanked out the top of the White House from google earth. France and Germany have made it illegal to profit from such satellite imagery. Images which make such details easily visible and distributable pose a security threat that needs to be addressed as per the country’s requirement. As of now India has no law binding satellite images.

Google has already said that it is willing to cooperate with the government. In all probability, the ‘sensitive’ pictures will be removed or blurred from the public domain. Even though doing this can be justifiable, there needs to be a limit to which the government is allowed to go ahead with its blurring campaign. Otherwise, total control of satellite imagery will just become an instance of ‘big brother is watching’.

Already the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) has released plans of using satellite images to trace and remove illegal hoarding, especially during elections. It is possible that these images will be used for surveying cities. These surveys may be used for enforcing basic laws, such as traffic rules, but they may also be used to track people driving those vehicles. ‘1984’ may have temporally passed us, but even now, the satellites will not be able to track us in the similar way. Though we may not traced and tracked by satellites, giving the government total control over the imagery is not desirable.

Satellite imagery has been adopted by people to their advantage. In October, last year, a group of farmers from Maharshtra were able to prove that the compensation the government was paying them for acquiring land to create an SEZ was inadequate. The official documents had listed the land as being infertile and the government had fixed the compensation accordingly. Yet by using Google earth, the farmers were able to display the crop areas and thus prove that the land in question was fertile and thus was eligible for higher compensation.

Thus satellite imaging is like any other technology, people can choose to use it or abuse it. Even though the government must be allowed to blur the photographs that are available online, it must do so in a manner that is transparent and accountable. This way we can protect our installations but also ensure that the government does not block the technology in a way can be used to curb the citizen’s rights and control them.

(Graphic (c) Shrivathsa Sridhar)

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