Human Rights Group Turns To Satellite Images To Save Lives In Darfur
The Eyes on Darfur Web site has been set up to display an ongoing series of satellite images of 12 villages deemed to be a risk from the Janjaweed militias backed by the Sudanese government.
Human rights may soon be better protected thanks to the ability of satellites to focus human attention. Amnesty International on Wednesday plans to announce a new initiative to monitor 12 villages in Darfur, Sudan, using commercial satellite imagery.
Representatives of Amnesty International USA intend to introduce the project, Eyes on Darfur, at the International Digital Earth Symposium on Wednesday at the University of California, Berkeley.
The Eyes on Darfur Web site has been set up to display an ongoing series of satellite images of 12 villages deemed to be a risk from the Janjaweed militias backed by the Sudanese government. The images will be updated every 12 to 72 hours, allowing observers to track events on the ground and, if necessary, alert humanitarian officials.
Amnesty International developed with project with help from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The Save Darfur Coalition funded the project.
Ariela Blätter, director of the Crisis Prevention and Response Center for AIUSA, led the development of Eyes on Darfur. She said that satellite imagery has already proven invaluable for human rights work. "The use of satellite imagery for documenting past atrocities has changed the behavior of the Sudanese government," she said, pointing to a diminishment of scorched-earth practices that can be easily identified from satellite imagery.
While "the Khartoum government has been resistant to traditional forms of advocacy," Blätter believes that satellite technology, in conjunction with personnel on the ground and modern communications, can curb the violence in the Darfur.
Amnesty International was involved in another recent effort to use geospatial imagery to focus world attention on Darfur: In April, Google Earth added a default multimedia layer to better inform its users about the humanitarian crisis in Darfur.
Google Earth and Amnesty International get their satellite images from commercial satellite imagery companies like DigitalGlobe, GeoEye, ImageSat International, and Spot Image. Amnesty is getting a "significant price break" because of the nature of its work, according to Blätter, who said that ordering up-to-date satellite imagery typically costs about $1,800 to $2,500 per picture.
In a statement, Larry Cox, executive director of AIUSA, said "Darfur needs peacekeepers to stop the killing. In the meantime, we are taking advantage of satellite technology to tell President al-Bashir that we will be watching closely to expose any new violations."
The satellite surveillance with which Cox threatens the Sudanese president comes at time when U.S. government prosecutors also see danger in aerial pictures.
Over the weekend, the U.S. Department of Justice said that it had charged four individuals with conspiring to attack New York's JFK airport by blowing up its jet-fuel supply tanks and pipeline. According to the government's legal filing in the case, the alleged conspirators used Google Earth images of JFK airport to plan their attack.
In the face of such revelations, the possibility that commercial satellite imagery might be subject to censorship is again at play in the press. Last month, The Associated Press reported that Vice Adm. Robert Murrett, director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, said, "I could certainly foresee circumstances in which we would not want imagery to be openly disseminated of a sensitive site of any type, whether it is here or overseas."
Privacy advocate Lauren Weinstein argues against such action in a message posted to computer science professor David Farber's Interesting People mailing list. "While there are admittedly a very limited number of extremely highly sensitive locations for which censorship of satellite imagery at Google Earth resolutions can be justified, attempts to extend such imagery blocking to broadly cover possible terrorist targets would not only be ineffective at its stated purpose, but actually a potential disaster for public safety," he said.
Indeed, while satellite imagery may be helpful to those trying to kill people, it's also helpful to those trying to help people. John Hanke, director of Google Earth & Maps, said in a blog post earlier this year that Google had received calls of thanks from government agencies for "for the role Google Earth played in guiding rescuers to stranded victims" of Hurricane Katrina.
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