Imagery and Privacy

I recently did press call with Tim, talking about the Where 2.0 conference. We covered the popularity of Google Maps, the big changes coming for Internet mapping portals, the rise of the grassroots hacker in this space, and the cool pictometry of Microsoft’s Virtual Earth. Ryan Singel from Wired News was there, and asked a question about privacy and mentioned “national security”. I didn’t really speak to national security in my answer but had afterthoughts about the terror of images, which I sent in a followup email. Here they are.

Hi, Ryan. When you said “national security,” I felt like I had something to say there, but I couldn’t remember what it was. Naturally, it came to me after the call ended.

Der Spiegel recently found a B2 bomber caught on Google’s satellite imagery. My wife worked on the zero radar emission protection for the B2, and it was great fun for her to see “her baby” again. I blogged about this. I think the story here is not that national security has been compromised by consumer grade satellite imagery showing a B2. The government can scrub the satellite images that civilians get. If they felt it was of national security, they would have scrubbed Edwards Air Force Base from the map. The story is not even that other nations with spy satellites, and there are a lot of them, have been able to see (at much greater resolution) our landmarks, military bases, and secret aircraft for a long time.

The real story is how perception trumps reason. When I told a coworker about Microsoft’s pictometry (low-flying aircraft taking oblique (45-degree) images of cities) the coworker said, “oh great, the terrorists will love it!” I didn’t agree. The fact is that imagery, either satellite or pictometry, doesn’t help them much. Satellite imagery gives you roads and shapes of a map and lets you discover the number of air-conditioners on building roofs. If the terrorists can use that, all power to them.

The pictometry is higher resolution than the satellite but still not enough to make you recognizable as you: they get about 1-foot resolution compared to 1/2-meter resolution for satellites, so assuming you’re stark naked sunbathing in your back yard while the pictometry camera flies overhead, you’ll show up as five pixels high. That’s not enough to identify you as naked, let alone as you. Pictometry goes up to half-foot resolution, but it’s still not enough. There’s a great quote from the satellite imagery guy exactly 24 minutes into the MSN Channel 9 piece on Virtual Earth : “it’s not until you get to 3 or 4 inches per pixel that it goes from being aerial imagery to porn.”

So what you can actually learn from the pictometry is far less than you’d get by driving there in person, doing a live reconnaissance. If I were to try to plan a bombing on a building, I’d get very little information from Virtual Earth–I’d still want to do a live scouting trip to learn more.

What worries people is not what’s possible technically, but the surprising effects of seeing a photo instead of seeing a map. Photos feel more real, with more detail and a far great connection to the world we inhabit. For me, it’s the difference between reading a musical score and hearing it. Realizing that anyone anywhere can see your house from above is a shock, a connection between the virtual and real worlds that wasn’t possible before. And every improvement in the images (detail, angle) that makes a better view also generates a more startling reaction.

And it’s this vitality, this power that comes with images, that makes them useful. There are things I can learn from a map that I can’t learn from a turn-by-turn description, and there are things I can learn from a satellite image that I can’t learn from a map (street parking, complex intersections, etc.). When MSN Virtual Earth ships, I’ll be using it to scout my route for every trip I take: I’m constantly getting lost because the information in maps and directions don’t help me at tricky intersections.

So I’m not too concerned about national security implications, so long as the Feds keep on top of their duty to scrub. The only privacy implication I can think of is that my neighbourhood association might use it to nosy through everyone’s back yards, looking for illegal outbuildings, spa pools without permits, or out-of-code solar panels. But given that they’re my neighbourhood association, they could just wander through the neighbourhood and look over our fences anyway. I don’t mind that anyone can do it over the Internet–they’re not learning anything that could harm me.