Full Disclosure: I hold a reserve commission with the United States Air Force who has assured the public that I’m not a criminal. I also did some consulting with the SpaceX Starlink program early on where I provided some insights into microwave broadband delivery. The views here are my own and do not represent those of the US Government, the Department of Defense or the United States Air Force.
I want to start this post by stating that as far as I know Tesla has a solid record of preserving their customer’s privacy. I don’t know what the company does internally with the data their cars generate, but aside from a few kerfluffles with the media, the company seems to be doing a decent job of securing customer data.
According to public reports the United States Air Force operated a system called “Gorgon Stare” from March 2011 to 2014. The system was designed to provide near real time surveillance of a large area so that troops on the ground could use the images during tactical operations. It used multiple airborne cameras mounted on a Reaper drone to capture images and then stitched the images together digitally. The goal was to provide troops on the ground with a near real time, high definition “Google Maps like” application. By some accounts, it worked.
Gorgon Stare was a military project and didn’t benefit from the “move fast and break things” approach of Silicon Valley. SpaceX on the other hand, does. Elon Musk’s company has shown again and again that they are willing to take significant risks, try hard things, fail fast and learn. That’s why they are doing simultaneous landings of their first stage booster rockets while their competitors are trying to figure out how to develop reliable software.
SpaceX’s Starlink team has recently started launching low orbiting satellites 60 at a time. In fact, on January 6th 2020 SpaceX became the largest satellite operator in the world. The system the SpaceX team is building will be able to deliver ultra-high-speed broadband at extremely low latency….globally.
But there is a privacy risk in having all of those low orbiting, high bandwidth satellites up there: those satellites could become a global version of Gorgon Stare. With some relatively low cost optics and some sophisticated software ( which SpaceX, unlike Boeing, actually has the ability to develop ) the StarLink system would be capable of providing a real time equivalent to Google Maps. Here’s how.
The Starlink constellation orbits relatively close to earth and when it is completed there will be thousands of satellites spinning around the globe. That means that if you are in a populated area, there will always be a Starlink satellite overhead. With regulatory approval, high resolution camera systems on those satellites could stream real time video back to a datacenter where computers could synthesize the data into real time mapping data.
This application would be made more powerful by adding the data generated by Tesla’s customer cars to the system. As far as I know, accessing the camera feeds from Tesla’s cars requires physical access to an SD card, but who knows? In the future Tesla may pay drivers for imagery captured during their morning commutes? By the time a system like this comes into being there will be millions of Tesla vehicles on the road, each and every one an 8 camera ground level surveillance platform.
A system like this would have a lot of utility. Law enforcement could use it to track suspects without helicopters, environmentalists could monitor polluters in real time and traffic engineers could use the data to dynamically adjust speed limits and traffic light timing. And that is just a few of the possible uses. Real time global imaging may have as great an impact on our future as GPS has had in our present.
There is also a dark side. High resolution real time satellite imagery may be used by despots to track and kill protestors. Stalkers could use it to spy on victims. Paparazzi could use it to harass celebrities. Criminals could use it to case targets and, since it will likely be possible to rewind the data and look at prior days, it will always be possible to rewind the data to establish patterns of behavior. That means everyone from marketers to kidnappers would be able to easily determine a family’s schedule.
Mitigating this risk is largely in the hands of one man: Elon Musk. To date Mr. Musk has demonstrated a remarkable commitment to openness – Tesla has granted royalty free use of its patents. The company has demonstrated a commitment to environmental sustainability and, for the most part, has been a good corporate citizen. Hopefully, Mr. Musk will build a culture that respects privacy and puts strict policies in place about how camera data can be obtained, stored, accessed and used.
Simple tactics like allowing individuals to blur out their homes and businesses ( something that Google does not allow for aerial surveillance photos ) or lowering the resolution of publicly accessible data might help, but the most effective way to preserve our collective privacy in this brave new world will be for men of principle who have power, men like Mr. Musk, to propose and support privacy legislation. Just because something CAN be done, doesn’t mean it SHOULD be done. Here’s hoping visionaries like Mr. Musk see that.
Mycroft’s First Officer, a serial entrepreneur and Air Force Officer, Joshua brings more than 15 years of leadership experience to the Mycroft team. He is a strong supporter of the open ethos, net neutrality and consumer privacy. Joshua lives in Holualoa, Hawaii with his wife and co-founder Kris Adair.