A Big Party for a Small Satellite

A hip factory in downtown San Francisco is producing miniature satellites with major implications for climate research and environmental preservation—and also for privacy.
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Chester Gillmore, senior vice president of manufacturing at Planet, introduces a satellite during a media tour at Planet's manufacturing facility in San Francisco on September 11th, 2018, during the Global Climate Action Summit.

Chester Gillmore, senior vice president of manufacturing at Planet, introduces a satellite during a media tour at Planet's manufacturing facility in San Francisco on September 11th, 2018, during the Global Climate Action Summit.

The most prolific satellite factory in the world is, as you might expect, full of complicated instruments and awash in fluorescent light, but pretty much everything else about it is a surprise. For one thing, it's in downtown San Francisco, tucked in an anonymous building in the trendy tech-hub SOMA neighborhood. It's also not particularly large. It features no robots, very little automation, and an assembly line with just a few steps—the satellites only require a set of 10 tools to build.

I'm here to tour the place during its grand opening, scheduled to coincide with San Francisco's Global Climate Action Summit. That timing is not a coincidence. Planet, the company that runs this factory, is a self-styled environmentalist start-up with the motto, "Using space to help life on Earth."

Chester Gillmore, Planet’s vice president of manufacturing, is our tour guide, narrating with rapid-fire enthusiasm the various elements of the assembly line, from the logic boards in pink bubble wrap to the assembly kits that sit on baker's racks. Yes, baker's racks. The satellites that Planet builds are about the size of a shoebox or a loaf of bread; a technician can make three in a day. In the last four years, the company has manufactured and launched nearly 300 of these mini-satellites. Using its current fleet of 150, Planet is now imaging the entirety of the Earth's landmass every 24 hours. It's an impressive feat with enormous implications for environmental research and climate monitoring—as well as for security and privacy.

The fingerprints of Silicon Valley culture are all over the evening's festivities. They're evident in Gillmore's pink and white bowtie; in the gauzy, checked lab coats we're required to wear during the tour; in the tiny cartoon doodles and custom quotes that are laser-etched into every Planet satellite; and in the name that the company uses for the satellites themselves: "Doves." Emblazoned on the side of one Dove we pass is a quote from Werner Heisenberg, marveling at how "the universe is not only stranger than we think, it is stranger than we can think." The company hires artists in residence to decorate each of its Doves with a unique design.

Before our tour group leaves the factory floor to visit Planet's old headquarters for a swanky reception, Ola Elvestuen, Norway's minister of climate and environment and one of the night's distinguished guests, takes a moment to speak. During the tour, Elvestuen says, he was thinking about the importance of transparency. Planet's unprecedented rate of Earth imaging allows us to observe change all over the planet in a way we've never been able to before. It's an important tool for stopping deforestation and has promising applications for preserving our oceans.

But that's not the only thing this technology can do. As Elvestuen concludes, "It's up to us—as governments, as local governments, as businesses, as organizations—to make sure that this technology is being used for good."

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The evening's reception features all the accouterment of a San Francisco tech party: diminutive salads with grilled root vegetables in little bark cups; tiny strawberry rhubarb tartlets; small plates of macaroni and cheese with Dungeness crab; and nary a trash can—nothing but compostable plates and compost bins. A projector serves striking images onto the wall from above: first Jacobshaven Glacier in Greenland, then flooding in Houston, presumably taken during Hurricane Harvey.

In the next room, a cluster of science fair-style presentations showcase the many innovations made possible through Planet's data. A delegation from Brazil talks in animated Portuguese about projects to fight deforestation. Two women hand out brochures about an effort to use satellites to monitor the health of the world's shallow coral reefs. Nearby, a researcher from Carnegie Institute of Science explains how Planet data is helping him build an algorithm to calculate the amount of carbon sequestered in Peru's rainforests. All around me, partygoers are sipping cocktails and discussing the potential here for helping protect the environment. But there's one conversation I'm not hearing.

Next to the Peru exhibit, I find Planet engineer Jesús Martinez watching the crowd. Martinez works on analytics and modeling for Planet, with a focus on land use and object detection—things like buildings, roads, and ships. Planet's data can be used beyond environmental purposes, including applications in industries from insurance to oil extraction, agriculture to intelligence. A review of recent headlines includes Planet images of Chinese military action in the South China Sea and weapons facilities in Iran and North Korea. That work has received little attention at tonight's reception.

I ask Martinez if there's any purpose for which he would not feel comfortable having his data used. "If the data was used for [military] targeting, I would not be OK with that," he answers, adding that Planet's established company values would keep such a thing from happening. (Planet's code of ethics includes a section averring the company's commitment to "a peaceful and responsible use of space.")

And besides, Martinez concludes, the resolution on the images produced by Planet's Doves is not good enough for a viewer to discern faces, making it difficult to use its technology to track individual people. Given these limitations, if someone wanted to use satellite images to target a person or even a group of people, Martinez says, "our satellites wouldn't even be the best for that. The product is focused on measuring change."

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Timothy Edgar disagrees with these rosy readings of Planet's capabilities, calling arguments like Martinez's "myopic." Edgar, a former intelligence official and privacy lawyer who worked on related issues at the American Civil Liberties Union and inside the Pentagon, and who now teaches on cybersecurity at Brown University's Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, says that, when it comes to privacy concerns around this kind of imaging, "It's not just about whether you can pick out a face. You can interpret a lot through context. If you can see people at all, if you can see cars—and if you can do that on a daily basis—you could see if somebody is on vacation or not."

The company disputes this possibility. A Planet representative reiterates that the resolution of its images make distinguishing people impossible and cars very difficult, and emphasizes that there is no precedent for its imagery alone being used to identify a person or group of people.

A satellite on display at Planet's manufacturing facility in San Francisco on September 11th, 2018.

A satellite on display at Planet's manufacturing facility in San Francisco on September 11th, 2018.

Even if Planet's satellites are relatively low-resolution compared to larger, more traditional models, Edgar notes that this "is the way the intelligence community has always used satellite imagery. You study what cars are parked in the parking lot; that can reveal an enormous amount of information. It's used to plan military attacks. It could be used for corporate espionage." What about somebody going through a bad break-up setting up a daily search for an ex's house, he asks? What about a government tracking rebel troop movements, or even the movements of a particular ethnic group? Is Planet prepared for the human rights implications of that?

In response, a Planet representative emphasizes that the company's imagery cannot be used to track individuals or their personal relationships, and points to a number of instances where it has been used instead to track and confirm human rights abuses in remote locations.*

The key to preventing data abuses, in Edgar's view, lies in the processes the company has in place for enforcing its values and auditing its customers' data use—including tracking customers that might be misrepresenting the ways they're using data or manipulating it to show something it doesn't. "When you have those kinds of capabilities, the worst thing you can do is say, 'Don't be evil' and think that's good enough," Edgar says.

In an email exchange after the event, I ask Planet representatives about the systems the company has in place to handle these issues—privacy, security, ethics. In response, a spokesperson notes that the company has an ethics officer who consults with executives before every deal to ensure that each new contract is in keeping with its code of ethics; Planet also runs thorough reviews and regulatory checks around new clients to look for red flags. The spokesperson calls the company's data security protocols “robust” but declines to say more about what they are.

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Back at the reception, Planet Chief Executive Office and Co-Founder Will Marshall takes the stage to tell the chattering crowd about his company's next steps. He doesn't disclose the big news that will come a few days later—that Planet will partner with the state of California to build a satellite to help track pollutants that cause climate change—but does talk about another new project: Queryable Earth.

Increasingly, Marshall explains, it's not humans that comb through the images generated by Planet's satellites. The company is working to incorporate machine learning that can identify objects automatically, differentiating, say, a ship from a plane.

Marshall's voice rises with enthusiasm. If Planet's analytics can identify objects automatically, that opens up enormous possibilities, he says. Queryable Earth users will be able to ask questions like: "What's the combined area of all Earth's forests?" They'll be able to ask Planet to catalogue the locations of trees knocked down between this week and last week in the Amazon. They'll be able to pinpoint "the locations of anything in the world."

It’s true: The success of a project like Queryable Earth could have enormous implications for environmental stewardship—helping track the consequences of climate change, trends in deforestation, effects of warming of oceans, and on and on. That's not necessarily all it could track. The crowd applauds anyway.

*Update—September 24th, 2018: This post has been updated with a further comment from Planet representatives.

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