China’s new satellite is said to spot pot fields, smuggler routes

China has poured billions of dollars into building a nationwide surveillance network – by one 2013 estimate, the country had 30 million surveillance cameras in parks, on highways and even in taxis.

Now, there’s one more very powerful eye in the sky allowing authorities to keep tabs on things: the Gaofen-1 satellite, which is capturing high-resolution images from 300 miles above the Earth.

Analyses of images captured by Gaofen-1 have enabled Chinese police to locate fields of opium poppy and marijuana in northern China and uncover dozens of routes used by smugglers at the border with North Korea and along the frontier in the restive Xinjiang region, the official New China News Agency reported Monday.

Gaofen-1 was launched in April 2013 and formally put into service in December. During the first few months of testing after its launch, the satellite (whose name means “high resolution”) provided data on earthquakes, floods and smog in China. Its cameras were capable of capturing objects as small as a bicycle, the news agency said.

Authorities may be having second thoughts about publicizing their capabilities. The China National Space Administration first posted a statement Friday detailing the satellite’s usage in public security efforts. But after Chinese press reported on the marijuana field finds and other details Monday, the statement was removed from the space agency’s website. And the Public Security Ministry on Tuesday denied the satellite found any cannabis farms.

Still, Chinese authorities say the country’s extensive terrestrial surveillance network helps to deter crime and maintain “social stability,” though critics say it constitutes an invasion of privacy and is often deployed to monitor dissidents.

Gaofen-2, China’s most advanced satellite, is capable of capturing images of an object 3 feet long in full color; by comparison, GeoEye-1 — launched in 2008 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, provides a resolution of objects as small as 1.5 feet. And commercial satellite imagery provider DigitalGlobe announced in July that it plans to launch WorldView-4, capable of capturing objects down to a resolution of about 1 foot, in mid-2016, after the U.S. Department of Commerce recently decided to allow DigitalGlobe to sell imagery with resolution as fine as about 10 inches.

In China, as in the U.S., the government’s increasing ability to monitor people’s activities has raised some unease among ordinary citizens, though there’s little they can do about it, except maybe stay home.

“I can’t sunbathe on my rooftop anymore. This is really annoying!” said one of the most-liked comments about Gaofen-1 on social media when word of how its images were being used hit the Chinese news.

Full article: China’s new satellite is said to spot pot fields, smuggler routes (LA Times)

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