Google’s New Satellites: All-seeing Eyes for Good or for Evil?

Building SkySat-1 in the clean room of Skybox in Mountain View, CA, in 2013. (Photo: Spencer Lowell, Wired)
Building SkySat-1 in the clean room of Skybox in Mountain View, CA, in 2013. (Photo: Spencer Lowell, Wired)

The reach of Google’s online empire is hard to overstate. In a sense, the Google search engine is the loom through which the entirety of the public internet is woven. With tools like Gmail, Google Calendar, and Google Docs, the company also handles many of our private online tasks. Using the data generated by these services to target online ads, Google has built a business that generates tens of billions of dollars a year.

Now, 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.

Really Big Data

In his WIRED feature story on Skybox, David Samuels describes some of the stunning ways high-resolution images shot from space are being used to unlock secrets about life on the ground. One company is tracking cars in parking lots to create retail forecasts. Images of pits and slag heaps reveal the productivity of mines. Pictures of property damage from above can tell insurance companies whether a claim is valid.

“Many of the most economically and environmentally significant actions that individuals and businesses carry out every day, from shipping goods to shopping at big-box retail outlets to cutting down trees to turning out our lights at night, register in one way or another on images taken from space,” Samuels writes. “So, while Big Data companies scour the Internet and transaction records and other online sources to glean insight into consumer behavior and economic production around the world, an almost entirely untapped source of data–information that companies and governments sometimes try to keep secret–is hanging in the air right above us.”

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 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.

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SOURCE:  
Wired

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