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Amid Stratospheric Valuations, Google Unearths a Deal With Skybox


Skybox can determine how much oil is being pumped out of the ground in Saudi Arabia by imaging oil-storage tanks from above. The company can peg the likely price of grain months in advance by measuring the health of every square yard of cropland on Earth. One city has used Skybox's data to determine who built illegal backyard pools and might also use it to identify water-restriction violators during a drought.

Stashed in: Google Acquisitions, Privacy does not exist., Google, Valuation, Privacy, Knowledge Management

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For 1/38th the price of WhatsApp, Google acquired Skybox Imaging, which puts satellites into orbit 185 miles above Earth on the tip of the same Russian missiles that once threatened the U.S. with nuclear destruction. And here's what Skybox could allow Google to accomplish: Within a couple of years, when you want to know whether you left your porch light on or if your teenager borrowed the car you forbade her to drive, you might check Google Maps.

That's because by 2016 or so, Skybox will be able to take full images of the Earth twice a day, at a resolution that until last week was illegal to sell commercially—all with just a half-dozen satellites. By the time its entire fleet of 24 satellites has launched in 2018, Skybox will be imaging the entire Earth at a resolution sufficient to capture, for example, real-time video of cars driving down the highway. And it will be doing it three times a day.

You might think, thanks to weather maps and the satellite view on Google Maps, that such imagery already is readily available. But because satellites were, until recently, so expensive to build and launch, that isn't the case. There are only nine satellites in orbit now that capture high resolution images for the commercial market, and their capabilities are regularly commandeered for national-security purposes by the U.S. government. That means most of the pictures of the Earth that you've seen are of poor quality and years out of date.

What's the barrier to more companies doing this?

Google sounds like they got a bargain.

And yet, as I discovered when I visited Skybox recently at its modest, low-slung headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., satellite imagery isn't even the business in which the company's founders see themselves. As at Google, the business of Skybox isn't data, but knowledge.

"We think we are going to fundamentally change humanity's understanding of the economic landscape on a daily basis," says co-founder Dan Berkenstock.

Here's an example of what he's talking about. In 2010, an analyst at UBS discovered that if he bought satellite images of parking lots of Wal-Mart stores, he could predict the company's sales figures before they were revealed in its quarterly earnings report, because cars in lots equal shoppers in stores.

"We're looking at Foxconn every week," Mr. Berkenstock says, because measuring the density of trucks outside the Taiwanese company's manufacturing facilities tells Skybox when the next iPhone will be released.

This seems incredibly privacy violating, no?

It is or at least has the potential.

If Google ever decides to use everything it knows about us, we're doomed.

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