Skybox can take photos from 500 miles up with a sub-one-meter resolution of the ground below. That isn’t not likely to sit well with privacy activists who already don’t trust Google. What does the right to be forgotten mean when Google can always see you anyway?
Skybox’s pedigree likely won’t help assuage anyone who likes a good conspiracy theory. According to Samuels, one of the company’s co-founders, John Fenwick, had previously worked as as a liaison in Congress for the National Reconnaissance Office, “the ultrasecret spy agency that manages much of America’s most exotic space toys.” A major investor had worked as an intelligence officer in the French army, while its CEO held previous jobs that brought him into close contact with the Department of Defense.
That’s not to suggest there’s anything nefarious about Skybox or its intentions. It’s hard to get anything into space without entreé into government and military circles. But Skybox CEO Tom Ingersoll told Samuels that the government is interested in his company’s imagery. “In the end,” Samuels writes, “the government will likely commandeer some of Skybox’s imaging capabilities under terms similar to those imposed on other vendors.” With Google now involved, that begins to sound a lot like the NSA commandeering the internet servers to spy on U.S. citizens.
Skybox or Skynet?
Even if a network of high-powered imaging satellites could give Google the power to track an individual from space, it probably wouldn’t. Setting aside any legal or moral constraints, there’s just no percentage in it. Monetizable insights of the kind that would interest Google or companies willing to pay Google for access to that data are derived from observing patterns and populations, not individuals. As geeks of all varieties are fond of pointing out, n=1 is a terrible sample size.
If Google finds ways of using these satellites that ends up making users’ lives more interesting and convenient, most people are unlikely to object, just like revelations of NSA surveillance haven’t exactly dented Gmail’s market share. But people may find the idea of Google looking down from the heavens on their physical selves more discomfiting than peering through their browsers at their virtual personas. After all, putting an all-seeing Google eye in space gives a whole new meaning to “do not track.”