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When Google Earth first debuted in 2005, privacy advocates reacted by overwhelmingly rejecting the new satellite imagery platform. Google Earth provides the public with the ability to access satellite pictures of any coordinates just by simply dragging the mouse. This gross invasion of privacy can involuntarily give the world a glimpse at your home, your belongings and your surroundings. Google Street View pushed the boundaries of personal privacy even further by providing a street-side picture of your home or business for the world to see.
In some circumstances, Google Earth and Street View are tools that have immensely helped people gain their bearing in a foreign place. Defenders of Google Earth and Street View argued that regulations surrounding satellite and street view images being posted on the Internet made it difficult for malicious people to get anything of value from the images. These regulations required that some portions of the pictures be blurred out. Other regulations mentioned that certain photography resolution thresholds must not be breached.
While these regulations seemed like a fair compromise, the United States government has instituted a change which suddenly loosened the regulations surrounding satellite imagery policies. These loosened regulations have resulted in companies such as Google now being able to display ultra-high definition photographs in near real-time, online – displaying resolution as small as one foot. In fact, Google recently acquired Skybox imaging for $500 million in order to jumpstart its live satellite imagery endeavors. Skybox’s plan is to have 24 satellites circling the earth at all times by 2018. Wired magazine notes that “With six small satellites orbiting Earth, Skybox could provide practically real-time images of the same spot twice a day at a fraction of the current cost.” While this innovation could stand to become Google’s next billion dollar revenue stream, the model presents all kinds of problems for those who value privacy.
The Impact of Ultra-High Resolution Satellite Imagery
The notion of having a satellite being able to photograph your house with an ultra high resolution camera twice per day is the epitome of Big Brother. Subsequently having it broadcast on the Internet for the world to see is a gross invasion of personal privacy. If you live in a densely populated urban area, you may have more than two pictures per day being published online. Real time high definition satellite imagery will definitely be helpful if you must navigate against heavy rush hour traffic in an urban area. Those who enjoy living on the grid can see obvious advantages for this technology. Privacy-minded individuals have an entirely different perception of Google Skybox.
While current images on Google Maps can display images of your house and car, Skybox can show detail about your house and car – for instance, if you have a satellite dish, if you have a mailbox, what you’re eating at that outdoor picnic (pizza?), and even how many children are playing in your yard. And it can do this virtually in real-time.
“If you imagine a satellite sat above your office then the old resolution could probably make out your desk. The new imagery – where each pixel measures around 31 centimeters (12 inches) – can now make out what’s on your desk,” Clive Evans, lead satellite imagery investigator with LGC Forensics, told the Independent.
“When you reach this sort of frequency you can begin to add in what we call ‘pattern of life’ analysis. This means looking at activity in terms of movement – not just identification.”
Let’s face it: Google SkyBox is a dream come true for the criminal underworld. Any stalker, burglar or any other sort of criminal now has instant access to a frequently updated aerial feed of your home. A sophisticated group of criminals could theoretically target your home using data gathered from the ultra high resolution satellite photos being published by Google. Instead of driving through your neighborhood, criminals could canvass your house daily without ever stepping foot inside your neighborhood. Sophisticated criminals could potentially be able to determine when you are normally at home or when you’re typically away.
Criminals who are able to take an analytical approach to this intrusion of privacy could even canvass your entire neighborhood and base their attacks on all the data they have accumulated. Seedy individuals from the underworld can build databases that tell them when your neighbors are typically at home and when they are away. These efforts are used to determine when the least amount of people will be at their homes during certain periods of time. This gives criminals a time window of when they can show up and perform their malicious intentions while minimizing their risks of being seen or caught. The loosened regulations on satellite images can give anyone an amazing amount of detail on the area they have selected on the map. Experts mention that they are able to examine the high resolution pictures taken by SkyBox satellites and determine the make and model of vehicles that are sitting in parking lots.
Governments and Big Corporations Want The Data, Too
This creepy new technology supersedes any privacy fears that consumers held against Google Maps back in 2005. These real time public images can become key data points that indicate more granular details about places around the world, including the economic health within a specific region. Corporate executives who have chosen to remain nameless have admitted that they have already begun devising methods to make use of this data.
Governments all around the world – even small countries with no satellites — will now have access to a rich continuous stream of events happening in real time. With SkyBox’s high resolution satellite on the cheap option, these smaller countries can now monitor events as they happen rather than having to rely on unconfirmed reports from senior officials or news agencies.
Nations such as the US stand to gain little from Google’s endeavors because the US government already possesses this technology. The only difference is that SkyBox costs a fraction of what the government paid to develop technology of this same caliber.
The data that Google SkyBox brings to the table is clearly game-changing because it ensures that an up-to-date high resolution picture of a home or business is being broadcast online for anyone to see.
If you do not want your home or property on it, it may be possible – once it is rolled out — for you to ask Google to blur out your property on search results. This option was available in the original Google Earth. Only time will tell.