George Clooney revealed details last week about “his” spy satellite over Sudan, which he funds to keep an eye on the Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir, who has been accused of war crimes.

The Satellite Sentinel Project (SSP), which Clooney co-founded, has been innovatively using information from satellites to help prevent humanitarian disasters before they happen—rather than reporting the aftermath of a conflict. Near real-time satellite data, provided free by one of the worlds biggest commercial satellite operators, DigitalGlobe, is used to deter atrocities and to monitor military movements along the troubled border of Sudan and South Sudan, enabling responses that avoid civilian casualties. As the SSP motto goes: “The world is watching because you are watching.”

Other advocacy groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch also use satellite images to monitor human rights abuses. Images taken of Burma, Syria and Zimbabwe have shown the destruction of civilian areas, including razed villages and bomb damage. These can be quite powerful for those seeking to raise public awareness and pressure for political intervention, aid or sanctions. Their increasing value in this area is supported by the fact that the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court now has its own in-house team with an expertise in satellite data.

Steep changes in satellite technologies, particularly the increased availability of data at scales which allow the identification of ground-based objects, are obviously providing exciting new opportunities for NGOs to monitor remotely. But they also raise questions about who else is using satellite images for monitoring purposes, and what they are using them for.

In practice, governments have used satellites for many years, especially to police extensive areas where ground inspections would be a burdensome logistical exercise with high associated costs. Within Europe they are used by regulatory bodies to monitor fraud for farming subsidy payments, to patrol borders for oil spills and boats carrying illegal immigrants, and to check compliance with legislation concerning the environment, deforestation, and water usage. There are also examples of the police using archives of satellite images to investigate crimes.

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