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?”