Satellites run by Google and other private companies may soon have the ability to capture images of a person’s face and other sensitive information if federal restrictions continue to loosen from lobbying.
According to Motherboard, North America’s largest satellite company, DigitalGlobe, is currently lobbying the government to relax federal regulations regarding what’s permissible to show in photographs taken from space, despite the fact that these rules were just loosened in June.
Two months ago, the Commerce Department cleared the way for satellites to begin capturing images of objects larger than 25 centimeters. Previously, objects had to be bigger than 50 centimeters in order to be shown legally in photographs.
This week, DigitalGlobe is launching a new satellite, dubbed the “Worldview-3,” in order to take advantage of the new rules, but just as noteworthy is that the company is hoping the Commerce Department will lower the threshold once again, this time to 10 centimeters.
“At 25 centimeters,” Motherboard’s Elyse Wanshel writes, “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.”
About half a year from now, companies like Google and Microsoft, as well as government departments like the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, will be able to start paying DigitalGlobe to incorporate the Worldview-3’s detailed photos into their services. This is expected to significantly improve Google services like Maps, Street View, and Earth, but the idea that satellites may be able to capture sensitive information like license plates could raise the eyebrows of privacy advocates around the country.
After the regulations on satellite images were reduced in June, Google purchased the satellite company Skybox Imaging. As RT reported then, the company issued a statement saying the purchase would not just bolster Maps, but also improve internet speeds and aid in disaster relief efforts.
Motherboard reports that Google is probably not out to scan individual faces or track license plates, but rather it’s likely going to use Skybox to establish a global cloud service. However, Wanshel noted the company may still find other ways to profit from being able to do so, and the intentions of other companies with access to the imagery – be it from Google or DigitalGlobe – may be tougher to decipher.
“What kind of companies will utilize this ‘cloud for the Earth?’” she asked. “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?”
Far more accurate satellite images on the way as US lifts restrictions
Satellite images have always been a bit fuzzy, thanks to the US government. But now the agency in charge is relaxing its rules, allowing mapping services like Google Maps or Bing Maps bring crystal clear pictures to their users.
DigitalGlobe, currently the only provider of commercial satellite imagery in the US, appealed to the Department of Commerce last year to lift its resolution restriction on satellite imagery that limited objects smaller than 50-centimeter (1.64 feet) from being shown in the photographs, Space News reported.
The US military and national security agencies insisted on the resolution cap in the 1990s, at the dawn of the commercial satellite imaging market, according to the Denver Business Journal. In April, the military, White House and Department of State indicated they were okay with loosening the restrictions, with the Commerce Department having the final word.
DigitalGlobe sells its images to Google for the company’s mapping service, but also provides satellite monitoring for mining and oil companies. Nongovernmental groups use crowdsourcing to analyze satellite images for conflict and human rights monitoring.
“It’s not just the technology, it’s the public’s ability to use the technology that’s important,” Corey Hinderstein, vice president of the international program at the Washington D.C.-based Nuclear Threat Initiative, said to the Business Journal. “This could continue to have a profound, positive benefit on the kind of work we do.”
The company will immediately be able to sell images with a resolution of 40 centimeters, but will be able to sell images of a more-detailed resolution of 25 centimeters within six months, when it launches its WorldView-3 satellite from Vandenberg Air Force base in August. That will allow users to go from being able to identify a car to being able to identify its make, Reuters reported.
“Our customers will immediately realize the benefits of this updated regulation, as for the first time, we will be able to make our very best imagery available to the commercial market,” Jeffrey R. Tarr, DigitalGlobe CEO, said in a statement. “As a result of this policy update and the forthcoming addition of WorldView-3 to our constellation, DigitalGlobe will further differentiate itself from foreign competition and expand our addressable market.”
The company hopes to see a boost in its financials from the higher-resolution images, though the Motley Fool notes that shareholders shouldn’t expect new customers right away. “Sure, some will bite right away, but it’ll take some time for DigitalGlobe to market its highest-resolution wares to its newest prospective clients,” Steve Symington wrote for the Fool.
DigitalGlobe will also be facing increased competition in the market, as the Commerce Department’s announcement came the same week that Google Inc. said it’s acquiring satellite company Skybox Imaging Inc. for $500 million.
Skybox has designed satellites to capture images and deliver them to customers with details down to less than a meter, and Google is working to bolster its mapping services and improve Internet access. It said the all-cash deal is subject to adjustments.
“Skybox’s satellites will help keep Google Maps accurate with up-to-date imagery,” Google said, according to Bloomberg. “Over time, we also hope that Skybox’s team and technology will be able to help improve Internet access and disaster relief.”
Aerial-imaging companies were previously able to provide higher-resolution images captured by aircraft, which can cost up to $100 to $300 per square kilometer, the Fool reported.
“In the past, collecting sub-50cm resolution required chartering and flying aircraft,” DigitalGlobe said in a blog post. “This is expensive, time-consuming, and can be limited by denied airspace or dangerous conditions.”
Google previously purchased Titan Aerospace, which has designed unmanned aerial systems capable of flying for five years at a time that Google suggested will be used to collect images from high above the planet, aiding initiatives like Google Earth and Google Maps.
Marc Dautlich, a lawyer from Pinsent Masons, told BBC that there could be “repercussions” from people worried about their privacy with the lifting of the resolution cap as well as “national security considerations” that may need to be addressed.
However, national security concerns still prevent satellite imaging companies from selling photos of certain locations, such as military bases. Those restrictions are unaffected by Commerce’s new ruling, according to the Business Journal.
Google buys web-beaming solar drones capable of flying for years at a time
A Google spokesperson announced Monday that the tech giant has purchased Titan Aerospace, snatching the New Mexico-based drone developers from Facebook, which has long been rumored to be interested in such an acquisition deal.
Titan Aerospace began operation in 2012 and its team of approximately 20 employees will continue to function out of its Moriarty headquarters after the deal goes through. They have spent years developing an unmanned-aerial-system (UAS) that, unlike the military drones buzzing over nations throughout the world, have been designed with the reported aim of bringing unfettered internet access to remote areas of the globe.
The sale was first reported Monday by the Wall Street Journal, although the terms of the deal were not disclosed.
“Titan Aerospace and Google share a profound optimism about the potential for technology to improve the world,” a Google spokesman told the Journal. “It is still early days, but atmospheric satellites could help bring internet access to millions of people, and help solve other problems, including disaster relief and environmental damage like deforestation.”
Titan deploys thin, solar panel-covered aircraft that are able to convert sunlight into fuel. The two models under development, the Solara 50 and Solara 60, are capable of flying for five years at an altitude twice the height passenger airlines travel.
Google has suggested the drones will be used to collect images from high above the planet, aiding initiatives like Google Earth and Google Maps. The spokesperson also told reporters the Titan aircraft will work closely with Google’s Project Loon, which is working to release high-altitude balloons that will broadcast Internet connectivity to closed-off areas of the world.