Monday, September 10, 2007

Google Earth helps search for Steve Fossett

Do you feel a bit unnerved knowing that satellites are spying on us all the time — and the images can be in amazing detail?

Usually a person can check satellite images of their home or farm, but the images are a few months to a few years old. For example, I looked up my house in the city recently. One image still didn’t have houses that were built across the street from me in 2004. But another satellite image provider showed those houses and was probably taken less than a year ago.

I also looked up some farms and was startled how well you could see buildings, machinery in the yard, feedlots, and other property as well as crops. Most of those images were also several months old to more than a year old.

However, the search for Steve Fossett has shown another side of how these satellite images can be used — and how fast an image can be used.

Fossett and his plane disappeared in Nevada last week, and a search for him has turned up eight other plane wrecks but no clue to if and where his plane might have crashed.

Yesterday, the media reported that Google was going to release up-to-date images from its Google Earth software. The images would be of the area where searches are being done for Fossett.

People are now searching through these Google Earth images to see if they can spot what searchers haven’t: A plane wreck that could belong to Fossett.

Of course, the military has said they don’t think these images will turn up anything that their own military satellites hadn’t found. But it will be interesting to see if that is true.

It is with mixed feelings we accept this technology. For friends and family of people who become lost, it is reassuring to know there is another option to help with searches.

For farmers, satellites can be useful production tools if they use GPS on their fields. We also use satellites for other useful applications in our lives, such as communication, weather and navigation.

But for those of us who have been around for a few decades, we grew up suspicious that the Chinese or Russian government satellites were spying on us. We still need to consider whether satellites are spying on our lives. We wonder what they can see, and how they use the information.

Using Google’s technology to find Fossett may sound like a positive application, but perhaps people would feel more comfortable knowing in the future more about how are decisions made about when and how these up-to-date Google Earth images are used.

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