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Writing on technical topics for the popular press is always a risky proposition. The old rule of thumb in the trade press, noted by Steven Hawking in A Brief History of Time, is that every equation cuts your readership in half. While it would be very easy to speak in either glowing generalities or obtuse detail about geographic information systems and satellites, Dr. Mark Monmonier of the Maxwell School at Syracuse University manages to walk a middle line in Spying with Maps. Writing for the University of Chicago Press, Monmonier can offer both the broad perspective expected in the trade literature as well as the technical insights of a graduate- or professional-level introductory text.
Spying with Maps starts out by presenting the history of airborne observation and surveillance, which extends as far back as 1794 when the French army used scouts in balloons to track enemy movements. Later, in the 1930s, United States government surveyors put photographers in airplanes so they could capture images of the fields of farmers enrolled in government agricultural programs. While balloons and other private aircraft continue to provide image capture platforms for land developers, competitor intelligence professionals, and the paparazzi, the vast majority of “overhead assets” are now satellites.
Chapter 2 provides a detailed, though necessarily brief, history of satellite development in terms of the resolution that the satellites’ imaging systems were capable of providing. As on a computer screen, a photograph consists of dots, or “pixels”, that combine to produce a coherent image. The first satellites had low-resolution cameras and had to drop their film canisters on parachutes to either be caught by an Air Force plane or recovered from the ocean, but later versions were (and are) able to communicate their images electronically. While Monmonier spends quite a bit of time on non-military satellite applications later in the book, the early days of space exploration were squarely in the military’s bailiwick. It’s interesting to note that he cites three authors who wrote extensively about security issues: William E. Burrows, who wrote Deep Black; Jeffrey Richelson, who wrote The U.S. Intelligence Community and America’s Secret Eyes in Space; and John Pike. Each of those other authors’ works is worthy of your time and study if you’re at all interested in the use of satellites as tools of national security.
While the military and intelligence applications of satellite imaging are fascinating, there are numerous civilian applications for other types of imaging and location-based tracking as well. The next several chapters detail how satellites, cameras, and location sensors can be used to model the spread of fires based on the type of fuel available to burn, determine soil composition, track and predict weather patterns, and monitor traffic congestion so that more effective traffic control methods can be implemented. I particularly like the discussion on pages 94-5 of how one could time a series of traffic lights on a one-way street so that someone driving under the speed limit could get a “green wave” of lights that let them travel uninterrupted for over a mile even though there were stoplights every few blocks.
Where Monmonier really got my attention, though, was in his discussions of layering, or how data from several sources could be combined with satellite or other imagery to create detailed profiles of geographic areas or, through location-based sensing, individuals. For example, Chapter 9 examines exactly how Claritas combines information from several sources for its PRIZM neighborhood classification system.
I left the privacy implications of geographic information systems for the end because, in a way, it’s obvious that observation and tracking technologies affect privacy. For example, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in Kyllo vs. United States that using infrared detectors to scan the walls of a private residence for heat emissions consistent with grow lights (used to grow marijuana) was an unwarranted invasion of privacy. Spying with Maps also covers electronic tracking devices in rental cars or on the ankles of parolees or those in home detention, and raises the issues of subdermal tracking chips implanted in kids or the elderly.
Monmonier isn’t afraid to voice his opinions on what he feels are justified or unjustified uses of tracking technologies, which makes Spying with Maps a welcome relief from the reams of tortured academic prose where the writer vainly attempts to establish a “professional distance” from a topic and avoids saying anything of consequence in a language non-academics can read without being driven to immediate slumber. While his argument for location-based privacy comes a bit late and isn’t as well-developed as I’d like, Monmonier’s Spying with Maps is a terrific survey of the history, capabilities, and implications of imaging and tracking technologies.