Watching the World, with help from Google

Google has been generating a lot of press as of late with their efforts to provide connectivity to the rural third world. Both their drone based project, which will compete with Facebook's, and their balloon based Project Loon, leverage technology to provide connectivity from via high-altitude, long endurance platforms. Both have deep privacy implications and Project Loon's original DNA and connections have roots in America's endless counterinsurgency struggle in the Middle East.

Project Loon uses stratospheric untethered balloons that maintain their position by adjusting their altitude in order to take advantage of wind currents. This allows them to maintain a position over a general area. The balloons fly high enough that vast areas can have wireless connectivity with them and node to node connectivity can be maintained between balloons and to base stations or satellites. 4GLTE band service are not the only electronics package these balloons can maintain.

The actual balloons are made by South Dakota based Raven Aerostar, which began in 1956 as a manufacturer of recreational hot air balloons. The business progressed through making it's own plastic based balloon fabrics to manufacturing tethered blimps for the military. In this last incarnation they manufactured the system that is the evolutionary missing link between hot-air balloon and technology platform. There are over a dozen of them are hovering over American forward operating bases in Afghanistan this very moment. It is called Kestrel and can also be mounted on drones and fixed wing aircraft, but it seems that tethered Aerostats for constant area surveillance are the preferred employment.

The Kestrel platform hovers over the Earth high enough for its cameras to take a high resolution digital picture every second or so. These pictures cover an area in excess of 100 square kilometers. The electronics package communicates these pictures to higher headquarters and troops immediately below allowing them to track the movements of every civilian for possible later arrest and torture, or drone strikes.

The camera component of the Kestrel platform is made by L-3 Communications, a storied defense contractor with major contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Domestically, L-3 is the largest supplier of license plate readers and body cameras to law enforcement. These body cameras and license plate readers can be, and in the case of license plate readers, are verified to be, used to build massive databases that track citizens every movement as they go about their daily lives.

L-3 shares a founding board member, Robert LaPenta, with a biometric identification firm, L-1 Identity Solutions. L-1 is now called MorphoTrak, and is one of the key contractors for the FBI's Next Generation Identification (NGI) system. NGI is a facial recognition software program coupled with a massive database.

Linking NGI with omnipresent body cameras and cell phone tracking software and cloud based computing, like Amazon's system which was built with CIA funding, and the State can know where a phone was, where a person was, who was on what phone, and who they were having lunch with if they were in cafe or sitting by a window.

Raven Aerostar's balloons for Google's Loon project just completed a six month endurance test. Google is moving rapidly forward with a technology that can blanket the Southern Hemisphere in connectivity. That same technology can locate a cell phone to within a few meters. That technology has previously been coupled with a payload that can take a detailed picture of over 100 square kilometers every second. Further leveraging the visual data and internet traffic with biometric software and advanced data-basing and half the world's population has their every movement and communication tracked every minute of every day.

Raven AeroStar's balloons for Google are larger and have more lifting capacity than their Kestrel model. The Kestrel model also has to bear the weight of it's own tether while maintaining altitude. L-3 surveillance camera package is surprisingly small. It is a R2D2 shaped object about 2 feet in diameter. Adding it on to payload of a Loon would not be a major engineering feat. It is also a feat that could be required of Google via classified national security warrant should Google not simply volunteer out of patriotic fervor.

The pioneering philanthropy of Google's Loon project will deliver the internet, surveillance and biometric cataloging to places that lack roads, access to clean water and other basic infrastructure. Google, and the national security state that works through it, will can exactly catalog people in these places and know their consumer desires. Their democratic participation in shaping their own future is not on the project's list of engineering goals.

As this technology is further integrated with solar-powered long endurance drones, such as the ones Facebook is using and Google is testing a Space-X's facility in Arizona, the technological fruits of the war on terror can be harvested.

Date Originally Published: 
Thursday, February 18, 2016
Gerry Bello