So long, privacy: New satellites blow Google Earth away

So you want to see if your wife is cheating on you. She told you she would be at yoga class, but a quick check of satellite images shows you her car is not there. You then check the driveway of a male friend she seems to be seeing a lot of. Bingo, the red VW Bug is in the driveway. She's totally busted. Call the lawyer.

Paranoid, maybe. But soon such a scenario will be entirely possible. Satellite company DigitalGlobe (DGI) is launching sophisticated birds that are upping the ante on image refreshing from orbit. And in the process, they are shattering any hope you had left for offline privacy.
During the Beijing Olympics last summer, a DigitalGlobe satellite was snapping pictures of the city with an eight-second refresh rate, according to this blogpost by John Battelle. While those images were high enough up not to be able to divine close-in detail, the satellites can perform very rapid refresh imaging of smaller areas on terra firma, as well. Welcome to the new era of personal satellite surveillance.

Yes, I am overstating the immediate danger here a bit. DigitalGlobe has no intention of offering its service to suspicious spouses or to gumshoes on sleazy surveillance missions. Rather, the company, which managed a $1 billion IPO in June 2009, aims to sell its imaging capabilities to governments, big business, scientists, media and other heavy consumers of extremely detailed digital maps and pictures. This is big business with potentially enormous markets such as oil exploration, military operations, forestry, urban planning, and corporate intelligence. Getty Pictures, the huge photo agency, has linked up with DigitalGlobe to vend images to big media shops.

But the new constellation of DigitalGlobe birds takes Web-accessible satellite imagery to a new and unprecedented level in terms of image refresh rates and down-to-the-pixel detail. On October 5, 2009, DigitalGlobe will launch WorldView-2 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. If successful, the launch will increase DigitalGlobe's satellite constellation to three. The three satellites will give DigitalGlobe, ". . . the highest collection capacity – more than 1 million square kilometers per day – of high resolution earth imagery directly to customers around the world," according to company information.

A look at the color images posted on the company's site is both breathtaking and shocking in terms of the level of detail and true color snapped from so far above the Earth. They images are clearly superior to the ones we've all seen coming out of Google Earth and other online mapping programs. That these images can be refreshed every few seconds -- something that Google nor any other online map provider can presently provide -- is astounding.

Battelle, who plans to showcase the technology at his upcoming Web 2.0 Summit in October, 2009, likens the new satellites to a Web crawler for the planet, a constantly refreshing generator of digital information tagged to locations that will help us categorize movements, changes, and other useful variations in our world. His enthusiasm for a new form of geophysical Web crawler and geographical data tagging is understandable. Myriad good uses of such technology are obvious, including surveillance of rapidly changing wildfires in Los Angeles, something that DigitalGlobe did for free.

Still, it's hard not to consider the darker side of this new found mastery of the skies and to think that we are approaching one of those before-and-after technology moments that shape the way we live.Remember, before the days of the Web crawler, no one worried about their college friends posting stupid drunken videos on YouTube the day before a big job interview. And damaging Facebook flashbacks were not even a glimmer in the mind of the most forward-thinking technophiles. But thus far humans could take a little bit of solace in the fact that offline behavior remained more or less private.

None of this is to directly fault DigitalGlobe. The company is merely following the march of technology. But these developments it makes it very easy to envision snooping on a wayward spouse via satellite in the very near future and for not too much money. Frankly, that creeps me out and I think it should creep you out, too.

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