Access to the high-tech surveillance tools would, for the first time, allow Homeland Security and law-enforcement officials to see real-time, high-resolution images and data, which would allow them, for example, to identify smuggler staging areas, a gang safehouse, or possibly even a building being used by would-be terrorists to manufacture chemical weapons.
….Unlike electronic eavesdropping, which is subject to legislative and some judicial control, this use of spy satellites is largely uncharted territory. Although the courts have permitted warrantless aerial searches of private property by law-enforcement aircraft, there are no cases involving the use of satellite technology.
….Even the architects of the current move are unclear about the legal boundaries. A 2005 study commissioned by the U.S. intelligence community, which recommended granting access to the spy satellites for Homeland Security, noted: “There is little if any policy, guidance or procedures regarding the collection, exploitation and dissemination of domestic MASINT.” MASINT stands for Measurement and Signatures Intelligence, a particular kind of information collected by spy satellites which would for the first time become available to civilian agencies.
As it turns out, spy satellites can’t really do all the stuff they show on 24, so this probably isn’t quite as Orwellian as it sounds. (Though, as Gary points out, if any of these satellites are gathering heat signatures from within buildings that’s almost certainly illegal for domestic use.)
But look: if there’s anything the NSA’s domestic spying program has taught us, it’s the fact that if we’re “unclear about the legal boundaries” then we should set some legal boundaries. And those boundaries shouldn’t be set by DHS lawyers. They should be set by Congress. That’s what we pay them for, right?