Google's hired eyes in the sky will soon be able to make out “manholes and mailboxes.” What else?
Image: Screenshot from DigitalGlobe/YouTube
Google will soon have an unprecedented ability to spy on you from space. Theoretically, at least. How?
Two months ago, after much lobbying by the biggest satellite company in North America, DigitalGlobe, the US government relaxed restrictions to allow for commercially available satellite imagery up to 25 cm resolution—twice as detailed as the previous limit of 50 cm.
Now, the first commercial satellite set to capture these high-res images, DigitalGlobe's Worldview-3, will launch this Wednesday. Six months after that, private businesses willing to fork over the money will be able to get their hands on hyper-detailed photos and videos of the globe.
That, of course, includes Google.
Google—along with Microsoft, NASA, and numerous US federal agencies such as National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which played a pivotal role in the seizure of Osama Bin Laden—is a regular DigitalGlobe customer. It signed a multiyear imagery contract with the colossus satellite company in February to use satellite imagery for apps like Google Earth, Maps, and Street View.
The extra sharp images from Worldview-3 will greatly increase the maps' level of detail to the point where it can make out 10-inch objects, which means Google will soon be able to see "manholes and mailboxes" from its hired eyes in the sky.
So, when you get that panicked feeling mid-flight that you forgot to turn off your coffee maker before leaving on vacation, Google will have resolution adequate enough for you to see a recent image of your slowly singeing house. You could also hypothetically pull up Google Maps and see a real-time image of your actual plane, rather than a blue dot, soar further and further away from your fiery abode.
The satellite behemoth is now making a push to relax the rules even further, down to 10 cm resolution, about the height of an iPhone 4.
DigitalGlobe currently has five birds in the sky, and one, GeoEye-1, has the ability to capture images at 41 centimeters. The company lobbied hard to loosen restrictions to 25 centimeters so that it could compete with foreign firms that will be blasting their own satellites into orbit soon. According to Reuters, the ability to commercially sell hi-res images this small, it can possibly increase the DigitalGlobe's revenue by $400 million.
Meanwhile, coincidentally or not, Google acquired its own private satellite company, Skybox Imaging, shortly after the US government relaxed its satellite imagery restrictions in June.
Google's Skybox intends to launch a constellation of 24 satellites by 2018, which will survey the globe by taking pictures of its entirety three times a day. This too will eventually, undoubtedly, upgrade the picture quality on its map applications. Google's own birds can capture 90-second video clips and imagery at 30 frames per second. But how much can they actually see?
At this point, considerably less than the shots the Worldview-3 will be snapping. Skybox's satellites deliver high-res imagery "better than 1-meter resolution," said Sara Blask, a company spokesperson. "Which means you can clearly discern features such as the size of car windshields, road markings and car colors."
Skybox founder Dan Berkenstock echoed this claim in a TED Talk he gave right before the launch of SkySat1: "From our own computer simulations we quickly found that one-meter really was the minimum viable product to be able to see the drivers of our global economy," he said. "For the first time being able to count the ships and cars and shipping containers and trucks that move around our world on a daily basis while conveniently still not being able to see individuals."
That last bit is the salient point: Skybox's satellites cannot capture details as small as license plate numbers or someone's face—yet. But DigitalGlobe's might. At 25 centimeters, the images will be detailed enough to classify the make of a car. If the restrictions relax further, the plate number or owner's face could come into clear view.
Naturally, the mere speculation of how this new powerful view will impact privacy is already raising concern. But how the Silicon Valley company actually intends to use its new detailed view of Mother Earth is still a looming question.
Google, for its part, claims it will use satellite image and video capabilities for the greater good. The technology can be extremely helpful in regards to natural disaster relief and it could provide internet access to places where it was previously unavailable.
In all likelihood, Google acquired Skybox not to spy on your mailbox number but to help it achieve something it has not yet been able to do: create a competitive cloud service. Skybox plans to combine its snap-happy satellites' images with a collection of public data it has already gathered, like historical weather reports and satellite imagery, and create a vast archive, or a "cloud for the Earth" for other companies to run their own software and algorithms on.
But that raises another question: What kind of companies will utilize this "cloud for the Earth?" What could they potentially create with this vast amount of knowledge that, until now, seemed only obtainable and appropriate for super powers or leather-clad spies in action movies? If Google can make out your face from space, will it? And how might it capitalize on that ability?
Despite much of society's indifference about sharing personal data—proven through social media's mass archive of photos and information—perhaps it's time we begin to have an open conversation, on an international level, about these new technological developments that can impact the world and public's privacy. The sky is no longer the limit.