The CIA Has Teamed up With Amazon To Monitor You From Space

Developers are welcome to build algorithms that read satellite imagery

Photo Illustration: Vocativ
Aug 26, 2016 at 4:06 PM ET

The company that controls most of the Earth-facing image-capturing satellites has a bold new plan to use artificial intelligence to track changes around the world — from traffic to construction to new park benches— and they’re collaborating with the CIA to pull it off.

On Thursday, satellite imagery company DigitalGlobe announced they have joined forces with Amazon, chipmaker Nvidia, and the CIA’s venture arm CosmiQ Works to create SpaceNet, a new initiative with a goal of creating artificial intelligence that can read and interpret images of the Earth.

Most of the images of the Earth available on Google Maps came from DigitalGlobe’s four satellites. But when you look at your backyard on Google, you only get a hint of the high-resolution imagery that the company produces, as they save the good stuff for paying customers or partners. Thanks to one such such partnership, the United States Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) used DigitalGlobe images to find two ships that had been seized by Somali pirates. Last month, the company partnered with Uber so the transportation company can get a better sense of changing urban landscapes, as road maps sometimes don’t keep up with city development. Earlier this year, Facebook bought DigitalGlobe satellite images then developed algorithms that outline buildings. Facebook then used that data to track population density.

Now, DigitalGlobe wants to encourage other developers to create the sort of artificial intelligence that Facebook has applied to their images. To start off, DigitalGlobe shared a high resolution satellite imagery of Rio de Janeiro through Amazon Web Services. The image includes hand-marked diagrams of 200,000 buildings — data that should help developers and data scientists build machine-learning algorithms that distinguish buildings and other structures. The company plans to eventually release about 60 million annotated satellite images spanning the globe. According to MIT Technology Review, these images will cover half a million square kilometers of the planet and will include more markings than just buildings.

While some concerned patriots might be wary of the CIA overseeing any project that fine-tunes methods of monitoring the global population on a major scale, DigitalGlobe has suggested that the AI that comes from this program will be used for good. “[W]e must advance our ability to analyze data to realize its full potential,” said Tony Frazier, DigitalGlobe senior vice president, in a statement. “SpaceNet is key to unlocking a huge explosion of new AI-driven applications that ultimately will help us better respond to natural disasters, counter global security threats, improve population health outcomes, and much more.”

Frazier told Technology Review that he believes AI will eventually be able to track changes like new park benches and road signs, and even determine what material is being used to makes roofs.

Whether you think that’s creepy or constructive, the medium is about to get much clearer. Next month month, DigitalGlobe is launching a new satellite that will capture images with a resolution of 12-inches. That level of global close-up used to be illegal just over two years ago, but the U.S. government relaxed regulations thanks to lobbying efforts from DigitalGlobe.