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The site tells visitors: "If you have enjoyed use of this very valuable database, we ask that you submit a voluntary payment in order to keep ZabaSearch. It adds that ZabaSearch's resources were donated by another search provider, PeopleData. That's misleading. His business partner, Nicholas Matzorkis , a dot-com millionaire, serves as chairman of both companies. The address, however, is actually a mailbox at a postal company called Advanced Mail and Parcel Services.

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Zakari insisted that ZabaSearch and PeopleData are separate entities, so there's nothing inappropriate about soliciting payments from visitors to support the "donated" technology. He also said use of a post office box is common for businesses that receive a lot of correspondence, which he said is the case with both ZabaSearch and PeopleData.

You remember Heaven's Gate. Thirty-nine members of the Southern California cult committed suicide together in They apparently believed this would allow them to rendezvous with a UFO hiding behind the Hale-Bopp comet.

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The bodies of the cultists, who had funded their activities with computer work, were discovered in a mansion near San Diego by a former Heaven's Gate member, Richard Ford , who'd been sent a videotape by cult leaders explaining their rationale for mass suicide. About a dozen cult members reportedly had worked for Matzorkis at various times. But according to news reports, he drove Ford to the mansion to check on the cult's circumstances.

He reportedly waited in the car while Ford went inside. Zakari, who was working with Matzorkis at the time, served as Ford's lawyer after the bodies were found. It never got off the ground. He also gave numerous interviews to reporters about finding the bodies. According to press reports, Matzorkis was briefly jailed a few weeks after the Heaven's Gate story broke when Ohio authorities recognized him on TV. He was on probation for a auto theft outside Cleveland, to which he had pleaded no contest. Matzorkis allegedly had failed to check in with a probation officer in California and hadn't completed his court-ordered community service.

Zakari told me that it was all a misunderstanding and that Matzorkis later had the conviction expunged -- a legal process whereby an individual's records are sealed from public scrutiny. Mark Lime, director of the criminal division of Ohio's Cuyahoga County court clerk's office, was unable to find any record of Matzorkis' conviction, indicating that the files had indeed been expunged.

Zakari called the Heaven's Gate episode "one of the greatest, weirdest and most interesting times of our lives. As for ZabaSearch, he said the service will soon undergo changes. He declined to detail what those changes will include. In less than a decade, starry-eyed promises inspired by Internet-organized protests in Tahrir Square gave way to the grim realities of data trafficking, cyberbullying, election meddling, and surveillance states.

Radical transparency in our online lives has frayed, not tightened, the fabric of societies. And now, in the unrelenting march of technological monitoring, things are getting real. As sprawling webs of sensors, cameras, and satellites give some but not others a near-real-time view from everywhere, certain parallels to recent history are unmistakable—and unnerving. Though today these companies often beneficently grant free access to selected researchers and nonprofits, their long-term business strategies hinge on converting data into dollars. And those who are being observed and recorded are not the customers—they are the products.

Does any of this sound familiar? Yet history is not destiny.

Because life happens.

If we anticipate many of the ways that these new windows on the world might be misused, it should be possible to set up rules and agencies that will encourage the best uses while thwarting bad actors. Surprisingly, experts say that might not be as hard as it sounds. Online instrumentation of the built and natural environment is extending our view of the real world in three dimensions at once: in extent, in detail, and in time. We are fast approaching a moment when, for a price, you can put eyes on any given spot on the planet on any given day, then scroll back through time to see how that place has changed.

Advances in machine-learning algorithms have made it possible to train an unblinking AI gaze on a location of interest and get automated alerts when the software spots something amiss. One can now tag, say, a whaling ship and follow it from port to port. With each passing year, this tech makes it easier to conduct oversight—in the most literal sense—of those who exploit the land and sea. It plans to expand the fleet to 30 within the next decade.

Last year, China added six high-resolution optical and infrared imaging satellites to its fast-growing constellation.

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A thickening flock of Earth-observing satellites blankets the planet. Over were launched during the past 10 years, and more than 2, additional ones are scheduled to go up within the next 10 years. These scanners orbit among an increasingly crowded field of thousands of communications, navigation, and astronomical satellites as well as almost a million pieces of space debris bigger than one centimeter. In the US, the most dramatic growth in environmental surveillance is happening in the private sector.

San Francisco—based Planet Labs has launched Earth-observing satellites since it spun up in For comparison, satellites owned by governments were operating at the start of The company now collects million square kilometers of imagery every day. And at the same time as the number of images is exploding, so is the number of pixels in each square kilometer photographed. Views from the newest Chinese satellites are thought to be sharper still. Such surveillance works only when skies are sunny.

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But soon, constellations of very high-resolution satellites will use radar to peer through clouds and the dark of night as well. Armed with new ways of seeing and with software that can merge surveillance quickly from multiple sources, watchdogs now have more opportunities to illuminate shady behavior while there is still time to do something about it.

A large fraction of the vessels that look like fishing boats, the investigators concluded, are actually militia patrolling the waters on behalf of China.

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A different group of researchers working with Global Fishing Watch recently combined observations from multiple satellites to uncover illicit Chinese behavior of a different kind. In addition to getting clearer views of the present, activists are now able to exploit cloud computing to replay the past from extensive image archives maintained by Google, Amazon, and various government agencies.

Amazon makes all data from Landsat 8 freely available on its cloud storage service. Though the search engine and imagery are currently free, thanks to financial backing by the European Union, they do not include the more detailed views offered by companies such as Planet and Maxar. At the Rights Lab at the University of Nottingham, for example, researchers have been scouring image series supplied by Planet and Maxar for environmental evidence of slave labor at brick kilns in India, in cotton fields in Turkmenistan, and in mangrove-displacing shrimp farms in Bangladesh.

The viewer, developed over three years and 10 million hours of computing time, maps disappearing streams and dwindling lakes worldwide over the past 35 years.

Scroll over northern California in the viewer, and the demise of Goose Lake is unmistakable. Click on the lake, and year-by-year measurements reveal that the drought sounded its death knell. Access to space has become cheap enough that better-funded nonprofits can now put their own birds into the sky. The Environmental Defense Fund plans to launch by a satellite it is building to measure methane leaking from oil and gas production sites worldwide, revisiting each site at least once a week. The floating drones are also mapping the abundance of phytoplankton and krill, which form the base of the marine food web.

One of the biggest challenges in environmental surveillance has been digging through haystacks for elusive needles. After many years of false starts, artificial intelligence finally seems ready to help solve this problem. But the monitoring teams found it hard to stare for hours on end at shaky, grainy, night-vision video. Hunters often slipped past them. Once they got the system working well in the lab, they tested it in the field in South Africa. It worked so well that they are now using it in national parks in Botswana and other African countries. Global Fishing Watch has used AI to distinguish fishing vessels from cargo and naval ships.

A research team at Stanford reported in April that it had fed aerial photos of North Carolina farmland into a deep-learning system to find almost industrial livestock farms that manual mapping had missed. Such concentrated feeding operations are a major source of freshwater pollution, in part because 60 percent of them operate without discharge permits, according to the EPA. In principle, regulators could use the AI to survey other states as well and to identify new operations as they pop up. All of these examples, and many others like them, are tremendously encouraging.

They tempt us to envision a happier future in which the instrumentation of nature draws humans into a more synoptic, and yet more intimate, connection to our home planet—one where Gaia itself gains a voice and a Facebook account. These systems could help people routinely band together to watch over ecosystems and organisms they care about deeply, despite never having experienced them directly. But they are companies, so they are selling that data to make a profit. We should take care not to overestimate the protective power of public awareness nor underestimate how the technology will amplify the power of big industry and bad actors.

That is essentially the mistake we made with social media. In the 20 years since Amos founded SkyTruth, his team has exposed rampant fracking activity, illegal gas-flaring, a decades-long oil spill, illegal fishing around Easter Island, and numerous other kinds of violations. The same can be said of the technology industry. Google and Baidu became behemoths by erecting themselves as the gateways to the Web; Amazon and Alibaba as the gateways to commerce; Facebook as the gateway to friends and family.

How much more valuable would it be to occupy the position of gateway to the planet? Amazon is even building a global network of 24 large antennas to download data directly from some of the satellites that gather it. Planet Labs has been open about its long-term commercial strategy. None of this is necessarily a bad thing. If Google noticed you heading out on a backcountry hike and offered to automatically summon help if you appear to get lost or injured, would you refuse?

There will be countless ways that the tech giants can use the view from everywhere to make our lives slightly safer, cheaper, or more convenient. Most have not yet been conceived. But let us pause to remember that Amazon, Google, and Facebook grew to become the third-, fourth-, and fifth-most valuable companies in the world by pitching ads directly at the people most likely to act on them. Inference equals influence: the product that the tech companies sell to their customers is their ability to infer how we live, where we go, what we do.