Log on to be a satellite spy

TORONTO, Ontario (Reuters) — A Canadian inventor has created Internet-based technology that could soon see regular computer users acting as armchair spies.

Vincent Tao, an engineer at Toronto’s York University, has invented a mapping and surveillance tool called Same (See Anywhere, Map Anywhere), which produces images so sharp that geographic co-ordinates typed into a Web site can reveal the make of a car parked on the street.

The tool works by taking satellite images of the Earth and combining them with real-time remote sensors that monitor traffic and weather.

The information is reformatted on a searchable Web site that can capture ground-level images of the Earth with little or no time delay.

The resolution is 60cm (two feet) — fine enough to determine the make of a car, though not the details of a human face, said Tao.

“This is real-time streaming technology. It’s like (the online directory) MapQuest or the navigation system in your car, but three-dimensional,” he said.

“You’ll see a globe, like a virtual Earth, and then you can fly in from outer space and zoom all the way in to a city and even to street level, which will be updated by very nice, high-resolution imagery.”

Tao said the potential applications were broad, including defense, emergency response and environmental monitoring. He added that the technology could become widely available as early as next year.

But the technology also poses concerns, said Veera Rastogi, a lawyer specializing in privacy issues with Canadian law firm Blake, Cassels & Graydon LLP.

“Any surveillance-based technology like this gives rise to the potential for abuse,” she said.

“Right now it’s a tool used by the Red Cross and defense, but, down the road, in whose hands would this technology fall and for what purpose? Bottom line is, it’s a case where, these days, the technology seems to be outrunning the law,” Rastogi said.

Cindy Cowan, the director of a Toronto shelter for battered women, echoed Rastogi’s concerns, saying the technology could put women at greater risk of abuse.

“Already the Internet has become a place where women are stalked, so to give another tool to abusive men motivated to find and track and stalk — it frightens me,” she said.