Satellites and Freedom

By | February 1, 2012 | Government, Telecom, Via Satellite

We usually discuss satellite technology in politically neutral terms, recognizing its achievements in communications, media, navigation, mapping and other fields, while at best tacitly acknowledging that the same capabilities can do harm, as well. The choice is in the hands of the owner/operator or user, be it a government or private entity. That is usually a fair posture; most technology has the potential to do good or ill, and the possibility of ill should not prevent that technology’s development, production and provision to public and private users. Nevertheless, once in a while, we should at least think about the potential ramifications of the devices we put in orbit. To that end, I have a controversial topic for you, to be booted with a few questions and arguable answers. What may be worse than putting American soldiers at risk in foreign lands? Maybe, just maybe, it is using robot drones to kill at a distance, often indiscriminately. What may be worse than suffering terrorist attacks on the “homeland” (a term we never used before 9/11, now common, but redolent with significance for readers of science/futurist fiction)? Maybe it is the surveillance and arbitrary detention society we are building in response. What may be worse than the leaking of important national security secrets? Perhaps the near-hysterical pursuit of those who leak secrets that merely discredit the guardians of the Republic, rather than endanger the Republic itself. Finally, why ask such provocative questions on this page? Because satellite technology is necessary to them all.

President Obama, as a candidate in 2008, promised that he would “strengthen both voluntary and legally required privacy protections.” He promised a new era of transparency in government. His Justice Department has done the opposite, pursuing the right to engage in warrantless tracking of GPS-enabled vehicles and arguing for police rights to read e-mails without warrant. The U.S. Supreme Court is to rule this year on whether warrantless GPS tracking is a violation of the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment prohibition on illegal search and seizure. The Justice Department recently had to drop its prosecution (though not for want of trying) of former National Security Agency employee Thomas Drake, who faced 35 years in prison for alleged violations of the Espionage Act (of 1917) for leaking news of scandalous $1 billion waste on an outsourced computer telecommunications surveillance project, rather than national security-sensitive information itself. Obama also promised a foreign policy of engagement. Instead, it has greatly accelerated the Bush Administration’s program of killing from afar. Drone aircraft have killed many enemies of the United States, but also many non-combatants, including children, in proximity to them. This topic may be the most sensitive of all, for who does not want to keep U.S. troops from harm’s way? Nevertheless, we should recognize that in “honor” societies, these attacks breed lasting hatred and contempt for us specifically because they are done without putting American lives at risk. Soldiers with feet on the ground are at risk, but are less indiscriminate, and as we have seen in Iraq, can even put a human face on the United States as both adversary and potential ally. No drone can do that.

Reasonable people may disagree on where to draw the line between the still [fortunately] hypothetical extremes of a society so open that it is defenseless against attacks by enemies lacking their target’s scruples, and a fully secure police state. Security advocates say that without security, our civil liberties are worthless. Civil libertarians argue that if we cede too much to our fears (and the fear-mongers among us), the society that we will have left will not be worth saving. What is indisputable is that satellite technology is indispensable to the security measures that may make us safer, but less free.

I am not suggesting that technology should be suppressed because bad things may be done with it; for one thing, I doubt that has ever succeeded; for another, technology achieves as much, or more, good than harm, and that is certainly the case with satellite technology. But that does not mean that we should never ponder, and even take a position on, the use being made of the machines so painstakingly built, launched and operated. That use is important to witness, and not least so by the industry that makes it all possible.

Owen D. Kurtin is a practicing attorney in New York City and a founder and principal of private investment firm The Vinland Group LLC. He may be reached at

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