Buried in three of the 250,000 diplomatic cables published two years ago by Wikileaks was an obscure reference to a curious purchase made by Google from the Pentagon. These cables record that Google has contracted to buy all surplus surveillance drones as the USA military withdraws from Afghanistan and Iraq.
These drones have been used to develop Google’s controversial StreetView service. Google’s idea is to have a drone electronically follow each StreetView CCTV camera car at a height of 50 metres. Instead of StreetView’s two dimensional presentations (which are very familiar), the idea is to capture three dimensional images using software developed by Google and California’s prestigious Institute of Technology (Caltech).
This software is being installed in Google’s Glass so that users can explore a 3-D representation of any street they choose to download; in effect users can imagine that they are standing in the actual street. As Google Glass users move their heads, they can see different street perspectives displayed in their headset.
The Assessment recommends that the drones should not be silent and “should emit a suitable sound, something like the low frequency buzz of a Doodlebug” (a reference to the Nazi V1 flying bomb). Other suggestions for a sound is the continual emission of the Morse Code for Google to identify the data controller (“--.” : “---“ : “---“ : “--.” : “.-..” and “.”)
The PIA does not call its drones, “GoogleBugs” but I am sure that this name is likely to catch on as Google develops its drone functionality. However, the PIA does recommend that the drone’s facility to intercept satellite communications is switched off “to avoid issues similar to the capture of WiFi logon-details by StreeView camera cars”.
The PIA deals with the inadvertent capturing of 3D images of adults engaging in nude sunbathing etc in back gardens. The PIA says that applying the usual blurring algorithm to just the face of a sunbather (as currently happens with Streetview) “risks leaving other body parts exposed, in full 3D”.
As an aside, it is interesting to note that some modern Google marketing executives wanted to develop the alliterative effect of the “repetitive g”, and call Google Glass, “Google Goggles”. However, this would inevitably lead to the new virtual 3D service being known a “Oggling”, and users of Google Goggles become known as “Ogglers”. I can’t be sure, but this probably explains why Google Glass emerged as the preferred name.
Other potential privacy issues are dismissed on grounds that unlawful activity is being unmasked. For instance “addresses where grandparents have been reported missing to the police” and “where gardens at these addresses clearly contain areas which have recently been dug over”. Similarly, local authorities can explore the dimensions of extensions at the back of houses to check that planning rules are not violated.
However, security companies wanting to sell security products to householders would need prior consent of each householder. The PIA notes that 3D StreetView would “revive the services offered by this failing sector as burglars are likely to become users of the 3D system”. To protect Google’s image, the PIA suggests voluntary disclosure of IP addresses to the police “whenever a request relates to breaking and entering”.
So clearly, it does not apply in circumstances where the drone is used.
Google Press releases: http://www.google.co.uk/press/
Google’s Goggles: http://www.google.co.uk/mobile/goggles/#text