Dropcam Key to Google’s New Ubiquitous Physical Surveillance Network

Dropcam Key to Google’s New Ubiquitous Physical Surveillance Network
June 25, 2014

Scott Cleland

Scott Cleland is a precursor: a proven thought leader with a long track record of industry firsts.... (read full bio)
Google recently bought Dropcam for $555m, a company which makes inexpensive, easy-to-install, WiFi-video-streaming-cameras that connect to cloud-based networks for convenient monitoring, set-up and retrieval.
 
Please don’t miss this graphic -- here -- of how the Dropcam acquisition fits into Google’s plans for a new ubiquitous physical surveillance network that will complement and leverage its existing virtual surveillance network.
 
Dropcam fills a big missing part of Google’s vision – literally to see, hear and track everything – in order to fulfill Google’s mission “to organize the world’s information.”
 
Most Rapid and Complete Vertical-Integration
 
What is remarkable here is that in only about six months Google has bought six key companies (Boston DynamicsNestDeepMindTitan AerospaceSkyBox, & Dropcam) that comprise many of the key building blocks necessary to create a ubiquitous surveillance network that can physically track most everyone and everything from the sky and on the ground.
 
Effectively Google is taking its dominant ad-driven surveillance model to the next level. Obviously it is not content with dominating just the virtual world of data and monetization of software products and services. Apparently, Google has ambitions to leverage its virtual dominance to dominate large swaths of the physical economy as well: e.g. wearables, devices, aerial mapping, robots, cars, energy management, smart home services, Internet access, etc.   
 
Importantly, physical surveillance, involving hardware and people, is much more difficult-to-scale, costly and people-intensive than Google’s virtual surveillance via cookies and other easy-to-scale software tracking technologies.
 
Evidently, no other company/entity is looking at the 21st century world/economy as holistically as Google’s apparent vision of fully integrating virtual and physical surveillance networks.
 
One could argue that these strategic acquisitions over the last-half year could be more cumulatively transformative of Google’s strategic direction, business mix and capabilities long term than any other half-year in Google’s storied history.
 
Simply, like the Google+ effort seamlessly integrated dozens of online products and services into a unified offering, expect Google to embark on another integration effort to secretly and seamlessly integrate these many new physical assets into a unified physical surveillance network. Once complete, expect Google’s dominance to be much greater than it is now because they are vertically-integrating much faster and more completely than any other entity -- by far. 
 
Accelerating & Compounding Privacy/Wiretapping Problems  
 
The privacy problems with physical surveillance in the real world are dramatically greater than in the largely-privacy-free virtual world.
 
For example, consider the two big privacy problems Google got into when it effectively wiretapped both Gmail and home WiFi via Street View. For Gmail, a Federal Judge hasruled that Google’s installation of a physical “Content One Box” to scan Gmails to create advertising profiles was effectively illegal interception or “wiretapping.” For Street View, a Federal Appeals Court also has ruled that Google’s Street View interception of home WiFi signals was effectively wiretapping because the signals were judged to be private and not public.
 
The super big problem here for Google is that in at least two of Google’s highest-profile and longstanding services, Google did not believe it needed to either disclose what they were doing with others’ communications, or ask anyone for permission to do what they were doing with their private information.
 
If surveillance innovation-without-permission is the norm at Google, and Google continues to maintain the legal position that people “have no expectation of privacy,” Google’s physical surveillance using Dropcam, and other physical surveillance technologies, for Google’s business purposes, could be at risk of being ruled illegalwiretapping as well.   
 
There are obvious potential privacy problems with Google owning Dropcam, because Google announced first that Google-owned Nest was the entity buying Dropcam (not Google itself), and second that Nest’s separate privacy policy would not allow the sharing of private Dropcam monitoring information with Google. 
 
Ironically and tellingly, it took only a couple of days for Google to undermine the public assertion that Google could not access private Dropcam information under Nest’s privacy policy. Google just announced that Nest will allow Google and some App developers to have access to some of the private information that Nest (and now Dropcam) collects on its users. Apparently, the claimed privacy “Chinese Wall” policy may be more like a screen door in practice.
 
A Profound Business Conflict-of-Interest
 
In conclusion, the acquisition of Dropcam, potentially provides Google’s engineers and advertising business model with arguably some of the most private, intimate, and valuable personal information available -- a continuous, inside-look into someone’s inner sanctum where the public and competitors could never go or see. The temptation for Google to use and leverage this valuable private information will be enormous.
 
With Nest, but even more so with Dropcam, Google has created a profoundly serious business conflict-of-interest by putting a paid-privacy-based-service inside a privacy-hostile advertising business model thirsting for access to the most valuable private info.  
 
If there is one thing that we’ve learned about Google -- from its world’s worst privacy rap sheet, and its latest ambitions for a ubiquitous physical surveillance network -- is that Google has very serious problems in respecting boundaries and asking for permission to use others’ private data.
 
George Orwell in his classic dystopian novel “1984,” envisioned a surveillance-technology called a telescreen that is eerily similar to Google-Dropcam’s capabilities today. It appears Google’s latest acquisition spree to assemble a ubiquitous physical surveillance network enables Google to be the 21st century’s Big Brother Inc. 
 
Forewarned is forearmed.

Orignially published at www.precursorblog.com.
Photo courtesy of www.yourstory.com

Scott Cleland

Scott Cleland is a precursor: a proven thought leader with a long track record of industry firsts.... (read full bio)