Outer space has attracted significant attention in the last few years as commercial space companies increasingly move into a realm once reserved for nation-states. Companies are competing to lower the costs of launching satellites, revenue for satellite companies is up, and access to affordable satellites has increased for non-state actors. If this trend continues, non-state actors could soon have a dramatically improved ability to use space capabilities. In the world of remote imagining, this ability could upend governance oversight and civil liberties’ protection.

Access to remote imaging, for example, is providing human rights’ groups the new ability to collect information more traditionally associated with spy agencies. Satellites have allowed groups like Amnesty International to identify mass slaughter in Nigeria, Russian involvement in Ukraine, heavy police action in Venezuela, and mass graves in Burundi. Projects like the Satellite Sentinel Project have come online to provide this sort of non-governmental oversight, and even to provide a type of deterrence through evidence and naming-and-shaming.  

There is, however, the other side of this oversight coin. Poorer governments are increasingly able to access remote imaging as well. Dictatorships, or even rival factions within governments, might be able to increasingly use remote imaging to maintain control. Especially in countries with large amounts of land, access to satellites will allow observation of populations. Governments struggling to stop terrorism—or hunt down freedom fighters, depending on the viewpoint—would benefit greatly from eye-in-the-sky observations.

For democratic nations, the growth of remote imaging constellations may raise privacy issues. While the technology is still in the future, there are already discussions about how small, affordable satellites will change the privacy discussion in the United States. Gary Dunow, the director of analysis for the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, has said that, “the civil liberties discussion is coming.”

Intertwined in these three civil liberties dynamics is the commercialization of outer space. Small satellites will be built by companies, launched by companies, and their services sold by companies. This dynamic will further complicate the debate, pitting innovation and the democratization of space technology against concerns over privacy and possible abuse of technology. What is the liability, legally or morally, of a U.S. space company if its remote imaging was used to commit war crimes halfway around the world? What if these services are used by the U.S. government for surveillance over the homeland? These are not just issues of technological plausibility: the discussion is already being framed with these questions in mind. The perception of a problem can be a potent driving force for regulations—whether needed or not.

This dynamic—the relationship between technological progress and civil liberties—will be increasingly important for those who wish to see American space commercialization flourish. There is great potential for new space technology to provide great terrestrial benefits, and any ability to hold governments accountable by double-checking claims with new tools should be pursued. Yet these tools will rely on innovation—which might be stifled by premature regulatory controls driven by fear, not actualized harm.

Like the debate around encryption, these will not be easy issues to solve. Encryption allows dissidents to survive under tyrannical regimes, but can also allow the planning of terrorist attacks on innocents. The rise of cheap, high-quality remote imaging will allow non-state observation of tyrannical regimes, but also the cheap surveillance of ordinary citizens. Threading this needle—balancing between innovation that can save lives and avoiding abuse of civil liberties—will be an increasingly important task for space policymakers.