Google's latest planned acquisition will will take the Internet giant's ability to spy on us and gather information about our activities to new heights — literally.
Last week Google said it would buy Skybox Imaging for $500 million, chump change for a company that is sitting on around $61 billion in cash. Skybox is building low cost satellites to orbit 185 miles above the earth's surface that will provide high resolution satellite images.
Until last week satellite imagery where features less than two feet were visible was banned for commercial use in the United States. The Commerce Department changed that rule, now allowing images with resolution as small as one foot. That's small enough to show manhole covers and mailboxes. Google's Skybox satellites will be even more revealing and intrusive than the images now availeable.
Here's what Christopher Mims of The Wall Street Journal wrote about the deal:
And here's what Skybox could allow Google to accomplish: Within a couple of years, when you want to know whether you left your porch light on or if your teenager borrowed the car you forbade her to drive, you might check Google Maps.
That's because by 2016 or so, Skybox will be able to take full images of the Earth twice a day, at a resolution that until last week was illegal to sell commercially—all with just a half-dozen satellites. By the time its entire fleet of 24 satellites has launched in 2018, Skybox will be imaging the entire Earth at a resolution sufficient to capture, for example, real-time video of cars driving down the highway. And it will be doing it three times a day.
In announcing the acquisition June 10 Goggle was low-key about the benefits: "Skybox’s satellites will help keep Google Maps accurate with up-to-date imagery. Over time, we also hope that Skybox’s team and technology will be able to help improve Internet access and disaster relief — areas Google has long been interested in."
The fact of the matter is that Skybox doesn't even consider itself an imaging company. They are all about the knowledge that can be gleaned from their images and data. Knowledge that is developed by snooping and spying, I'd say.
"We think we are going to fundamentally change humanity's understanding of the economic landscape on a daily basis," co-founder Dan Berkenstock told The Wall Street Journal.
Here is the sort of thing he's driving at: Back in 2010 an USB stock analyst figured out that by buying even the relatively low resolution satellite photos that were available of Wal-Mart store parking lots, he could predict sales figures before the data was released. Full lots mean lots of shoppers. Lots of shoppers mean more sales.
And there is industrial espionage that will directly benefit Google. Suppose the Internet giant could could figure out when Apple was planning to release the next iPhone. It could plan competitive strategy for its Android devices. With Skybox Google can see what's going on. The Taiwanese company Foxconn manufactures the iPhone. Measuring the density of trucks around the Foxconn plant reveals when a substantial number of devices are being brought to market.
"We're looking at Foxconn every week," Mr. Berkenstock told The Journal's Mims. Mims offered this assessment of Skybox's future impact:
"It's the unpredictable applications that could be the biggest. Like GPS before it, which started out as a military-only system that required laptop-size receivers and now enables driving directions in every smartphone, Skybox's images will inevitably lead to apps and services no one can envision—with unknowable disruptive potential."
And he offers this note of caution:
A potential downside to the Skybox acquisition is that it could represent a new level of privacy invasion for everyday people. Google will be able to determine all sorts of things about us that might not have been discernible before. For example, is your home on a block with lots of trees? It turns out that correlates with household income. Or, how many cars do you own?
Google's satellites won't be powerful enough to pick out individual people. Yet since Skybox's satellites get their visual acuity not from their optics—which are relatively primitive—but clever software, it's possible they'll become ever more keen-eyed even after they launch.
In a few years, when we look up at the sky, we'll have to wonder: Am I being watched right now?
Consider the power Google will have when it combines what it knows from the satellite images with what he knows about our online activities and emails. In George Orwell's 1984 government surveillance was ubiquitous. "Big Brother is watching" citizens were reminded. Orwell was right about surveillance. What he didn't predict was the extent it would be done by commercial entities.