National Reconnaissance Office — Fifty years of vigilance from above
With the $500 million purchase of Skybox, a startup that shoots high-res photos and video with low-cost satellites, Google can extend its reach far across the offline world. Thanks to its knack for transforming mass quantities of unstructured data into revenue-generating insights, the unprecedented stream of aerial imagery to which the company is gaining access could spark a whole new category of high-altitude insights into the workings of economies, nations, and nature itself.
But this acquisition will also demand assurances from Google that it will incorporate privacy safeguards into its vast new view of the world. Already Google gets a lot of flack for tracking user behavior online. With Skybox’s satellites, Google may gain a window into your everyday life even if you don’t use Google at all.
Not too often do we get the paranoid response BEFORE the technical part of an article.
In a statement, Google has said that, in the short term, it plans to use Skybox’s satellites to keep Google Maps up to date. And, in the future, the company says, it could use them to help spread internet access to remote areas, something that will help improve the reach of its existing services.
But imagine all the other things Google could do turns its artificial intelligence expertise onto a constant stream of images beamed down from above…
One Skybox insider told David Samuels that satellite images alone could be used to estimate any country’s major economic indicators. Take, for example, this Skybox case study of Saudi oil reserves measured from space. Now consider the insights that could come from marrying that visual data with Google’s Knowledge Graph, leveraging all the company’s algorithmic might. Google could learn all kinds of new things about the world.
But it could also learn all kinds of new things about you. Skybox can take photos from 500 miles up with a sub-one-meter resolution of the ground below. That isn’t likely to sit well with privacy activists who already don’t trust Google. What does the right to be forgotten mean when Google can always see you anyway?
Skybox’s pedigree likely won’t help assuage anyone who likes a good conspiracy theory. According to Samuels, one of the company’s co-founders, John Fenwick, had previously worked as as a liaison in Congress for the National Reconnaissance Office, “the ultrasecret spy agency that manages much of America’s most exotic space toys.” A major investor had worked as an intelligence officer in the French army, while its CEO held previous jobs that brought him into close contact with the Department of Defense…
Yes, these worries are legitimate. As legitimate as worrying about your DirecTV DVR listening in on conversation in the living room – or Microsoft Link turning over travel information in your new car to the NSA.
If Google finds ways of using these satellites that ends up making users’ lives more interesting and convenient, most people are unlikely to object, just like revelations of NSA surveillance haven’t exactly dented Gmail’s market share. But people may find the idea of Google looking down from the heavens on their physical selves more discomfiting than peering through their browsers at their virtual personas. After all, putting an all-seeing Google eye in space gives a whole new meaning to “do not track.”
It’s not the paranoia that I question. It’s the ignorance. Apparently, ignorance about how long governments have had this capability in spades. I learned both Soviet and American spy satellites were capable of reading the license plate on my car – in 1965. The US project started in 1957. I doubt that David Samuels or Marcus Wohlsen were born yet.
I don’t doubt Skybox has advanced beyond the software and hardware pioneered by Itek and whoever did Soviet satellite optics. But, if you think the alphabet soup of federally-funded spies and snoops haven’t been updating and upgrading – with a lot more moolah than a startup less than a decade in the air – you’re kidding yourself.
I don’t doubt there are or will be the occasional near-Earth project that’s cheap enough to attract Uncle Sugar’s spooks. Maybe there might be a view of something snapped at just the right place and time. I just don’t think relying on conspiracy theory to explain a half-billion$ purchase – especially when the spies who it for a living have a half-century head start. And all the taxpayers in the country to fund their work.
Maybe folks are primarily worried about Google spying for its own end…”imagine all the other things Google could do” could be all this is about. But, it’s still a heckuva lot cheaper to lease time or buy info from eyes in the sky than to acquire your own NASA. Unless, um, maybe you’d like to sell Android satphones to half the folks in Africa or South Asia and the Middle East.