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Forever Overhead Miscellanea

Forever Overhead Miscellanea



“Forever Overhead” is the rubric under which I put everything having to do with surveillance from above (satellites, drones, etc.), but is intended especially to focus on the “democratizing” aspects of the overhead which are open source (such as Google Earth and Google Maps) and the myriad data are put by myriad enterprising Googlers and scholars. It’s a sort of vertical panopticon –but one in which we can all play the role of warden.

I’m just returning (physically and cognitively) from a long trek to Russia, Mongolia and China via the Trans-Siberian Railway, and Gestaltist grows stale. Unfortunately, I’m slow to recover my capacity for blogging as so many other things. Sine I’ve got a hoard of potential links and short bits on this topic, so rather than sit on them while I convalesce, I’m rounding them up here.

Chinese Enigmas
First up and most recent are the recently uncovered imagery, via Google Earth, of these strange structures in China. This Danger Room post is itself a comprehensive roundup of the images and various speculations on their purpose(s).

One of the ones I’m most struck by–whose message is clearly less abstruse–is this one. Apparently it reads something like, “Remove ten thousand (i.e. ‘all’) obstacles to strive for victory/success”.

This is in Xinjiang province, (not so) incidentally the site of one of China’s largest ethnic/separatist movements (also incidentally, when I was in China one of my Great Firewall experiments consisted of searching “Xinjiang riots” on Baidu (China’s Google), where the first hit was a Chinese press article asserting that the uprising was staged by provocateurs external to China. The slogan’s a bit of a misnomer, though: there are more than ten thousand Uighurs in Xinjiang.

More images and speculation can be found here.

Pakistan’s Nukes and Google
Many have already read of my fondness for Jeffrey Lewis’s armscontrolwonk blog. Apparently Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control, Verification and Compliance Rose Gottemoeller cited one of his student’s (Tamara Patton) work modeling Pakistan’s Khushab complex using open source tools and Google SketchUp; since her mention is itself a pretty good summary of the effort, I’ll
meta-quote it here:

She is using freely accessible geospatial tools to gather and analyze
information about the complex’s capacity levels. The really
interesting part comes when she takes the open source satellite images
of the complex and turns those into 3-D models using a freely
available program called Google Sketch-up. This program constructs the
models with dimensions that Patton ascertained using tools in Google
Earth and basic trigonometry. The model is then placed on the map and
textured using observable features.

Through the Keyhole
When you’re watching TV or a movie and see some plucky analyst viewing live satellite imagery of somebody or thing, and some officious supervisor looks on or orders the satellite to be retasked to some other target (a newer, more 21st-century of the “enhance” meme) the closest actual thing (that we know about) is the Keyhole satellite.

One of these (albeit much older–a KH-9, we’re currently up to KH-11 at least) was put on display at the National Air and Space Museum… somewhat dramatically, for only one day.

An appropriately antiquated KH-9 image / Wikimedia Commons


Earth and the Anthroposphere
Globaia has produced a series of maps and visualizations attempting to map all current and existing human activity.

The Global Transportation System / Globaia

After the 34th congress of the International Union of Geological
Sciences, “anthropocene” may become an “official” epoch:

But the concept itself, the idea that human activity affects the Earth
to the point where it can cross a new age, is not new and dates back
to the late nineteenth century. Different terms were proposed over the
decades, such as Anthropozoic (Stoppani, 1873), Noosphere (de Chardin,
1922; Vernadsky, 1936), Eremozoic (Wilson, 1992), and Anthrocene
(Revkin, 1992). It seems that the success of the term chosen by
Crutzen and Stoermer is due to the luck of having been made at the
appropriate time, when humankind became more than ever aware of the
extent of its impact on global environment. It should be noted that
Edward O. Wilson (who suggested Eremozoic, “the age of loneliness”)
popularized the terms “biodiversity” and “biophilia.”

They define the Anthropocene epoch (we’re currently in the Holocene,
though after August 2012 this may no longer be true) thusly:

A period marked by a regime change in the activity of industrial
societies which began at the turn of the nineteenth century and which
has caused global disruptions in the Earth System on a scale
unprecedented in human history: climate change, biodiversity loss,
pollution of the sea, land and air, resources depredation, land cover
denudation, radical transformation of the ecumene, among others. These
changes command a major realignment of our consciousness and
worldviews, and call for different ways to inhabit the Earth.

More maps and related articles can be found at the Anthromes site.

And there’s the “i-tree” software from the US Forest Service:

i-Tree Canopy offers a quick and easy way to produce a statistically
valid estimate of land cover types (e.g., tree cover) using aerial
images available in Google Maps. The data can be used by urban forest
managers to estimate tree canopy cover, set canopy goals, and track
success; and to estimate inputs for use in i-Tree Hydro and elsewhere
where land cover data are needed.

US Forest Service


Satellite Archaeology
NASA’s Earth Observatory celebrated the 25th birthday of Landsat 5 by
documenting the evolution of Las Vegas sprawl.

A University of Alabama researcher has found at least 17 buried pyramids (as well as more common buildings and streets) using open
source and NASA infrared imagery:

Even ordinary satellite images used by Google Earth have helped. Many
of the old Egyptian sites have buried mud brick architecture that
crumbles over time and mixes with the sand or silt above them. When it
rains, soils with mud brick hold moisture longer and appear discolored
in satellite photos.

University of Alabama-Birmingham

‘In the old days, I’d jump into the Land Rover and go look at a
possible site,’ said Tony Pollard, director of the Centre for
Battlefield Archaeology at the University of Glasgow in Scotland.
‘Now, before that, I go to Google Earth.’

X Marks the… You Know
There’s no plaque or memorial commemorating the death of JFK (though there is a cenotaph) at Dealey Plaza, but there is a white “X” on the road where the fatal blow was apparently dealt (both shots, actually).

Google Street View

The X is a bit of a pilgrimage site. There’s even an (obligatory?) planking photo on the X.

The Vertical Panopticon, Liberated
The Sentinel Satellite Project embodies the “democratic panopticon” concept (their slogan is “The world is watching because you are watching”) using open source satellite imagery to track the movements of Sudanese soldiers and tanks against refugees, and even says they’ve discovered mass graves.

Sentinel Satellite Project

That’s it for now. While I’m not out of misc., I am out of time.

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Forever Overhead: GPS and Everyphone

Forever Overhead: GPS and Everyphone


KAL 007
In 1983, Soviet fighters detected and shot down a large jet they may have believed was a US RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft–it wasn’t; it was Korean Airlines flight 007–all 269 passengers and crew were killed,including an American Congressman. As well as the RC-135 that was in the air that night, a number of carrier-launched reconnaissance aircraft had been overflying Soviet installations on the Kurile Islands for months as part of the naval component of the notorious NATO operation ABLE ARCHER 83. In Presidential lore, Reagan’s emotional reaction is said to have led to the declassification of GPS in 1983. Ostensibly, he believed that access to these positioning data could be prevent the sort of straying that led to the KAL 007 incident. This sort of emotional response and its ramifications might seem a bit far-fetched, but given his Reagan’s reaction to the TV movie “The Day After” might be less surprising (let’s not forget his zealous pursuit of comprehensive arms control):

Edmund Morris, Reagan’s official biographer, said the film left Reagan “dazed” and produced the only admission he could find in Reagan’s papers that he was “greatly depressed.” Four days later, he said, Reagan was “still fighting off the depression caused by The Day After. (David Hoffman, The Dead Hand p. 91)

The trajectory of KAL 007 into Soviet airspace (CIA)


Incidentally, KAL 007 is hardly the only accidental shoot down of a commercial aircraft to have geopolitical significance. Indeed, less than five years later the USS Vicennes would shoot down Iran Air flight 655 (while in Iran’s territorial waters; the plane was also over Iranian territory).

GPS Goes Public
This isn’t the beginning of GPS’s story, but it is a seminal point in public access to the network. The Defense Department’s NAVSTAR GPS program began in 1973, and the first satellite was launched in 1978he though the system was made public in 1983, it was not completed until 1993-995 (the network comprises–among other Earthbound parts of the system–24 1-ton satellites, though the original number was 11, then 18; the full 18 were up in 1985–these were the Block I set, the full 24 were part of the Block II program). There’s significant nuance to the dates, generation and number of the satellites that I’m glossing over here on my way to the point; the Wikipedia article is actually quite comprehensive .

Initially, GPS receivers were restricted to auto-bound or handheld devices used by more serious trekkers, eventually a more commodity-level rental car add-on, and now a normal component of the typical smartphone.

Earlier this year, it was revealed that the iPhone was storing the phone’s location data and even sending it periodically to Apple. Note that these were not actually GPS data but locations derived from cell towers and wi-fi hotspots. Apple’s response was that the data were anonymous and used to optimize services based on these data. One problem was the length of time the data were being stored (a year) and the fact that the file was unencrypted. This was addressed soon after by an iPhone firmware update; now the information is only stored for a week (this is, incidentally, not unique to the iPhone–Android captures these data as well). There was at least one successful case of the issue being taken to court in Korea.

This exposure was made by Alasdair Allen and Pete Warden. Somewhat balancing the Foucauldian power relationship, they released an application that would allow users to see these data on a visual map. To be honest, making lemonade until the firmware update I quite enjoyed looking at the data as a sort of Situationist memory device.

Personal trajectory

I also managed to get to... well, see for yourself

The first image hews clearly to the freeways of the Bay Area. Closer zooming gives you a clear enough matrix of locations that you could perhaps trace the streets of San Francisco without the underlaid map. Which reminds me not only of the previously-mentioned North Korea image but also the signature left by a number of cabs trawling the streets of SF via Stamen’s old Cabspotting webapp (good gravy, that was 2006!):


Panopticon 2.0
(as in Web 2.0–as in the user-contributed content sense)
I was meaning here to invoke check-ins on Facebook and the like via location-aware mobile devices. Looking up Foursquare, I find out they’re not without a sense of humor (or perhaps–unlike the 90s when I was apparently cleverer–the obvious)–I’ve now realized not so clever or cynical, as it was my own confused Googling. Still:

An amusing accident... produced a wonderful visualization of the movement of 880 iPhones in Europe this April (submitted willingly of course!) I find it oddly similar–when not in motion–to the satellite image of North vs. South Korea at night posted in a prior Forever Overhead:


And of course more conventionally, GPS data have been used for years to track the movements of criminals via anklets and other penal jewelry. The Atlantic has a wonderful article on this contemporary Panopticon.

Reagan’s original statement on KAL 007:


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Forever Overhead: North Korea

Forever Overhead: North Korea

What we see of North Korea we see mostly from without; what we see from within we glean from stolen glimpses or staged and supervised displays of “everyday life”. As a result, our most reliable vantage point may be from above.


“Dark DPRK”
It’s almost obligatory, but here’s our curtain-raiser. I’m most fond of the version without outlines, because if you know what you’re looking at, the absence of light (save for Pyongyang) makes a negative border of North Korea, especially in contrast to South Korea’s island of light below.

Crowdsourcing Surveillance
Curtis Melvin’s “North Korea Uncovered” project is a stunning manifestation of the “forever overhead” thesis. Melvin et al. compile information from myriad sources and label everything they can (prison camps, ostrich farms, nuclear facilities, and Kim Jong-Il’s Neverland-esque water slide)–NoKo-spotting. They’re private analysts somewhat obsessively aggregating a rather serious open-source intelligence resource. Crowdsourcing it, actually: journalists, historians, retired CIA analysts have all contributed. And they’re “just” citizens–anyone with an Internet connection could do this… but now, we can just download the Google Earth KMZ file.

Nukes From Above (Still Lifes, Fortunately)
The Institute for Science and International Security has been acquiring commercial satellite imagery and reporting on the growth of the nuclear facilities at Yongbyon (the last update was yesterday). NKeconwatch has archives of past reports going back to 2008.

While we’re exploring the intersection of the Yongbyon facility and the Forever Overhead topic, a few years ago (2007, when Yongbyon was ostensibly inactive as part of the six-party talks) Satellite Imaging Corporation put together a fun 3D “flythrough” of the compound.


Speaking of supervised glimpses inside, IAEA inspections in 2008 to verify the aforementioned shutdown and accounting for all active and spent fuel (as in not being diverted) brought us this raw footage from inside Yongbyon. Note the ubiquitously-paired portraits of Il-Sung and Jong-Il in the control room.

Let’s not forget that the DPRK can exploit our dependence on overhead intelligence to telegraph its intentions (or attempt to get negotiating leverage) as far as nuclear tests; we had news reports based on satellite reconnaissance that North Korea might be preparing to test in May 2005, October 2006 (this one of course did culminate in an actual test), May 2009 (also “true”), even October 2010. Efforts to spoof aerial reconnaissance date back to WWI, but that topic awaits a future post. Of course, one doesn’t need to confine themselves to mere telegraphy, they can always just announce their intentions outright.

Also, back on the topic of judging growth at a distance, Amnesty International has made comparisons of overhead imagery to expose North Korea’s prison camps and the growth thereof.

A Note On Food Aid
Food–particularly the absence of it–is a perennial issue. The 1990s famine . North Koreans men are, on average, shorter than their South Korean counterparts. A US government team is currently in North Korea investigating claims that a new food crisis is underway and whether new requests for aid are founded. There is little doubt that North Koreans are indeed starving; the problem is that the DPRK has a history of “food deceit”, diverting international aid resources, to support its missile and nuclear programs. Food aid to North Korea should be closely monitored and contingent on rejoining–in “good faith”–talks with Le Six.

And missiles. And rockets.

AP (Digitalglobe)

Another Note on Stolen Glimpses: “Traffic Ladies”
Speaking of stolen glimpses, this is as fine an opportunity as any to mention the “traffic ladies” of Pyongyang (apparently an easy glimpse to steal, given the ubiquity of clips on YouTube–the only reason it took me more than 30 seconds to locate one to share was finding one without a lame sexist title):


Postscript: Syria/Al-Kibar
I’m out of juice, but you may remember the Osirak-reverie-inducing destruction of the putative reactor in Syria in . Alas, I’m out of steam and heading out, so for now you’ll have to settle for the company line:


Al-Kibar Before/After

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Forever Overhead: Pakistan

Forever Overhead: Pakistan

Drones, reactors, floods, and Usama bin Laden’s Google Earth debut–and you don’t have to work for a covert agency to see (most of) them…

The official US position on drone strikes in Pakistan is that they are “cross-border”, i.e. launched from bases in Afghanistan. However, Google Earth images obtained in 2009 by Pakistan’s The News and The London Times clearly showed Predator drones at Shamsi airfield North of Quetta. Denials were more pointed after an unwitting “outing”/mistake by Senator Feinstein when she said at a hearing (also in 2009), “As I understand it, these are flown out of a Pakistani base”. Her office attempted to walk the utterance back as well.

The aircraft are of course no longer visible on Google Earth, though new structures have since appeared. Ogleearth has a fairly enjoyable speculation and wonderment-rich post on the provenance of the images.

New America Foundation maintains a marvelous visualization/Google Maps mashup of drone strikes on Pakistani territory, with all available supplemental data on location/combatant vs. civilian casualties, etc. 2004-present.

Our study shows that the 244 reported drone strikes in northwest Pakistan, including 31 in 2011, from 2004 to the present have killed approximately between 1,493 and 2,379 individuals, of whom around 1,200 to 1,908 were described as militants in reliable press accounts. Thus, the true non-militant fatality rate since 2004 according to our analysis is approximately 20 percent. In 2010, it was more like five percent. [As of May 27, 2011]

The Nuclear Program
Newsweek recently reported on discoveries made by examining commercially-obtained imagery of the Khushab site. The images show construction (circa April 2011) of a fourth reactor for plutonium production (via reprocessing).

Not only does this represent expansion of the program itself, but also points to yet another track for the production of nuclear material. Heretofore (really, circa 10-15 years ago) the putatively prodigious output of Pakistan’s production had been based on Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) created in the enrichment process stolen, mastered, refined and in addition sold (sometimes in “turnkey” fashion including not just plans and the like but access to networks of businessmen who could illicitly provide the makings of similar programs)–thanks to the strikingly James Bond-bad guy-like A.Q. Khan–to a rogue’s gallery of countries including North Korea, Iran (where the P-1 became the Ir-1), and Libya (which, fortunately, “came clean” and sent its centrifuges to Tennessee, where good use is apparently being made of them–I imagine at more than one point in the last month or so the Colonel has been wondering if his short-lived return from pariah status was worth it).

Now, Pakistan’s diversification from just HEU into plutonium isn’t news, but again, the high points here are the pace of expansion and, the ostensibly public nature of the imagery and discovery (though seriously, one has to wonder how closely they were led to acquire imagery at this particular time from this particular site, and by whom).

I’m not going to belabor the plausibility and nuances of the “nightmare scenario” of loose (or acquisition-abetted) nukes at this point, but I will link to Sanger/Broad’s NYT article about US efforts to assist Pakistan in securing their arsenal, going so far as to offer assistance in developing PALs (Permissive Action Links–basically, as close as you will get to the real-life version of what are colloquially referred to as “launch codes” in popular culture). One interesting International Law nuance here is the question of whether giving PALs (or even assisting in the development of the technology) to a NPT non-signatory is a violation of our obligations under article 1 of said treaty.

Darn it, I was looking to some more canonical source, but the Wikipedia entry on PALs is pretty good.

Courtesy of NASA we have some astonishing imagery which brings home the scope of destruction of the 2010 flooding in the districts around the Indus River. Despite being a “show, don’t tell” advocate, the stats are hard to resist.

  • Approximately 1800 killed, BUT ~20 MILLION impacted
  • 1.5M displaced
  • 1.89M homes destroyed
  • An estimated $500 million crop damage (and of course let’s remember that you needn’t be anywhere near the vicinity of the flooding to be impacted by the absence of the food derived from those crops)
  • 5.3M jobs lost or attenuated, total economic impact estimated $43B; Pakistan’s GDP dropped or will bottom out 6-9% lower (obviously, taking us well into negative growth)

One unfortunately strategic beneficiary might be the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP, AKA “The Pakistani Taliban”), as they were able to provide assistance where the government couldn’t; this affords them a source of legitimacy they don’t normally pursue, more in the manner of Hizbullah in Southern Lebanon (which provides civil services there in absence–sometimes ensuring it–of the government; this is why you may sometimes hear Southern Lebanon referred to as “a state within a state”). As a result we have “inverse counterinsurgency” and a can count a strengthened TTP as one result of the floods. Also, government forces were distracted from their counter-TTP efforts by the floods.

Usama bin Laden Makes the Google Earth Scene
Some will remember a prior Contours of Catastrophe post musing about the familiarity of the outline of bin Laden’s compound. Well, the entrenchment of the shape and relevance of Google Earth continues apace–per

A milestone, all thanks to Bin Laden’s death perhaps that Google has “pre-announced” satellite imagery update for first time ever. This imagery update as expected includes the updated imagery for Abbottabad town of Pakistan that has gained attentions in recent days.

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Forever Overhead: Panopticon 2.0

Forever Overhead: Panopticon 2.0

Seeing is knowledge is power…


Panopticon, USA
Simplistic to be sure, but one could do worse if pressed for Foucault in five words. Knowledge and power are inextricably entwined, and seeing confers knowledge. Foucault made a trope of Jeremy Bentham’s architectural model, the Panopticon, to embody the role of observation in power relations. The Panopticon centralizes and privileges seeing; because everyone is a potential subject, they become an object of passive cohersion. In a prison designed on this model, the warden, situated in a central tower, could see every prisoner; since no one could be certain whether they were the focus of his gaze, they would regulate their own behavior, almost constantly, without active cohersion (discipline)–in fact, no one need be watching at all (the shelf life of this would, of course, be limited!): the mere threat of being observed would suffice.

Bentham's Panopticon (Wikimedia Commons)

…it is at once too much and too little that the prisoner should be constantly observed by an inspector: too little, for what matters is that he knows himself to be observed; too much, because he has no need in fact of being so. In view of this, Bentham laid down the principle that power should be visible and unverifiable. Visible: the inmate will constantly have before his eyes the tall outline of the central tower from which he is spied upon. Unverifiable: the inmate must never know whether he is being looked at at any one moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so. (Foucault, page 201 in the Vintage edition of Discipline & Punish)

The Threat of Visibility
But far more than just the person, the body, can be seen and confer power–all the traces of our lives have this capacity. For example, the immense trove of knowledge (films, photos, wiretaps, recovered mail, even gossip) that J. Edgar Hoover hoarded furthers the possibilities of passive cohersion, and couples control with reconnaisance. The fact that this hoard existed was an open secret, and no one, not even–especially not–the president was immune; any aspect of anyone’s “private” life might be exploited by Hoover or those he deigned to share scraps of this power with. Anyone who knew this might moderate their own behavior lest traces be sucked up by Hoover’s “Hoover”. Failing that, their only recourse would be to carefully manage their relationship with the FBI Director (not the office, but the Director himself).

Information Wants To Be Free
But, in the words of Stewart Brand, “Information wants to be free” (though originally he meant this in terms of expense, not liberation), and apparently it also seeks to liberate itself. And so, with for instance Google Maps/Earth/Street View, we become our own warden. Increasingly there is no single, centralized warden: less and less information is the exclusive property of state-operated agencies (to some degree–what’s worthy of exposé may not be sufficient to locate and destroy Usama bin Laden, for instance). Now anyone, given sufficient means, can acquire commercial satellite imagery (there was a time when the idea of commoditizing these images was contentious–indeed, how much longer will drones remain the sole province of state-run agencies?), or just find it on Google Earth and gain some knowledge worthy of exposure.

Google Street View

Panopticon Now
The contemporary Panopticon is not merely a penal device; not only is it a ubiquitous source of institutional intrusion, it’s also a framework for entertainment:

  • Workplace email
  • A Supreme Court nominee’s video rentals
  • Non-cash transaction records
  • Facebook (where we all can watch each other, for fun!)
  • Location check-in apps (wave to the Panopticon!)
  • Google dependency
  • iPhone GPS data storage.

Google Street View

But in popular culture it’s a trope all its own: reality TV (indeed, one of the progenitors of the genre was called “Big Brother”), protagonist/antagonist relationships throughout drama (think Klute, or the classic Lifetime drama, the Eye of Sauron, Rear Window–or just about anything, really).

However, for the purposes of this series, I’ll just focusing on the overhead manifestations, particularly the “democratizing” ones. Satellites, drones, and other forms of aerial sensing might be considered a sort of vertical Panopticon.

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