Spy Satellite

Google is planning to spend somewhere between $1 billion and $3 billion to create a satellite network that will offer Internet connectivity around the world, the Wall Street Journal reports. The satellites are expected to join the balloons and drones Google is already planning to use to create online networks in unconnected areas; there is no word on when they might enter orbit.

The rush to connect people to the Internet is both exciting and worrisome. On the one hand, few projects are more ambitious than the deploying giant balloons to bring people online. On the other, the idea of giving the most data-hungry company in the world access to the skies with drones, balloons, and satellites seems like a series of privacy-related disasters just waiting to happen.

Consider the privacy implications of Google’s Street View cars, which gathered everything from emails and medical records to passwords and instant messages while they drove around the world to photograph everything in their path. The company couldn’t help but turn cars into data-mining machines — what’s it going to do with balloons and satellites and drones?

Between these efforts and its attempts to further infiltrate our homes with the acquisition of Nest and reported interest in Dropcam, Google is creating a true panopticon from which many people will never escape. As I wrote last month when the Dropcam news was first reported:

It’s bad enough that this company is entrusted with the world’s largest mobile software platform, the premier search engine, and services on which many consumers rely, such as Gmail and Google Maps. Now it’s offering thermostats and might be getting into the home security business — in addition to creating self-driving cars and technologies that consumers will have tattooed on their arms or sitting in their stomachs. “Panopticon” doesn’t even come close to describing it.

Now it seems we can add balloons, drones, and satellites to that list of panopticon-creating tools Google is working on.

Reactions from around the Web

Engadget explains how Google’s satellites could complement its balloons:

The initiative might be very expensive, with tipsters estimating a cost between $1 billion to $3 billion. However, the satellites could eventually pay for themselves. They would really be an extension of the thinking behind the balloons from Project Loon – getting more people online increases the number of people who can see ads, improving Google’s bottom line. Any orbital internet service would most likely serve as a complement to Project Loon, providing data in far-flung, sparsely populated regions while the balloons handle places with greater demand.

Gigaom wonders what Google and Facebook know that we don’t:

A fundamental issue with developing markets is that, generally speaking, poor people who don’t already use mobile broadband avoid it because they don’t have enough money. Even assuming that Google and Facebook want to offer free connectivity because they want to capture a generation of eyeballs and become the funnel for all that lovely future ad revenue, they’d have to wait a very long time before they see a return on their investment.

Basically, all this activity is technologically fascinating and may well end up connecting millions of those who need it, but the end game is far from clear. If these plans are sustainable, they must have core elements about which we do not yet know.

Pando weighs in

On the political and privacy implications of a Facebook drone army:

Drones wouldn’t simply allow Facebook to bring Internet connectivity to more people; they would also allow the company to gather information about its users in even more ways. Considering the ease with which that information could be intercepted by intelligence agencies and the fear with which many regard drones, that will be easier said than done.

If it looks like a government drone, spies like a government drone, and transfers information to the same intelligence agencies as a government drone, chances are it will be viewed with the same fear as a government drone.

Good luck, Zuck.

On the same implications with Google’s drones and other flying Internet-givers:

Many of the same principles would apply to a Google drone. Both companies seek to gather as much personal information as possible to sell to as many advertisers as possible to continue building their war chests. Both companies wish to connect more people to the Internet and say that it’s for altruistic reasons when others would argue it’s really about making sure that they can exert even more control over those Internet users than they do over people already addicted to their products. And both companies plan to use drones in parts of the world where “drone” is more synonymous with “flying death machine” than either Facebook or Google would like.

On Facebook’s unwillingness to call a drone a drone:

[I]t seems that Facebook also recognizes that announcing its own personal drone program might not endear it in the hearts of all the people it’s trying to connect to the Internet and subsequently convince to sign up for Facebook for the purpose of selling their personal information to advertisers. That leaves us with this game of Euphemism Bingo, where Facebook avoids referring to its drones as drones while everyone else wonders what they’re supposed to call an unmanned aircraft that hovers above the clouds for months at a time.

[Image via Space.com]