WE’RE WATCHING! Would you like to know what your neighbor is up to? Perhaps take a peek in their window? Thanks to Microsoft, there may soon be no need to crouch behind the bushes - just get on the Net.

As a general rule, we're not in the "Microsoft is the evil empire" camp. We really have no problem with the fact that Bill Gates is wealthier than a fair number of nation-states. We didn't raise any objections when we heard rumors of a Microsoft takeover of the US federal government. (First of all, we knew they wouldn't really go through with it once they had closely examined the government's books. Secondly, they could probably do a whole lot better job of running things than the politicians and bureaucrats now in control.)

We don't particularly care whether you use Microsoft's or Netscape's browser to read our site; with design this bad, it can't make much difference. When we heard that Microsoft was buying off journalists to write pro-Microsoft articles we did take offense, but only because they never approached us. (If they had this article would, of course, have a completely different point of view.)

It wasn't until Big Brother Bill launched the web's largest database that we started to shiver.
Terraserver is ostensibly being used to test Microsoft's ability to handle mind-bending amounts of data.

The first idea was to take every transaction in New York Stock Exchange history and put it into the database. But no; that
would only amount to one-half terabyte of data.

The only thing that would fill up enough room - over a trillion bytes of data - is a map of the world. How much data is contained in the maps? More than all the html pages already on the web. More than one billion business letters. The amount of data in two million books.

But enough about size. Let's talk about your backyard, and what you're doing there. And with whom. If we can't find you in your backyard, perhaps we'll look through your bedroom window. All this, and more - much more - will soon be possible, thanks to
the miracles of satellite photography.

Right now you can go to the Terraserver site and look at satellite images of about a third of the United States and various parts of Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America. Currently, resolution is only sufficient to identify objects two meters across; still good enough to pick out your neighbors backyard.

Microsoft's plan is to develop a universal database of images down to a much finer resolution. Soon the database will include almost the entire globe at a one meter resolution, and more detail is coming. Microsoft chief technical officer Nathan Myhrvold is heralding a future where "You could put sensors on the world's rhinos and see in real time where they're going." Of course, if you can follow rhinos in real time, you can also follow other animals, like human beings.

The idea of using such photographs to "zero in on polluters" has already been raised. (Do you have a permit for that wood burning stove in your backyard? Let's see it! ) Been frolicking in the pool with your lover? We'll be enjoying the photos. Satellite photography is a voyeurs dream come true.

Microsoft is not the first to invade your privacy. The governments of many countries have been taking satellite photos during the last 40 years. In fact, some of the photos on the Microsoft site were taken by Russian spy satellites. US intelligence agencies can see, but not read, a car license plate with photos taken by satellites 100 miles above the earth.

Fortunately, you could normally count on the incompetence of national security agencies to prevent much real damage being done. Satellite photos have also been available from some private sources for years. For example, Spot Images of France has been selling such photos with 11 yard resolution images. But Terradata is the first site to provide truly public access to such photos - and its free!

Anyone who has followed the amazing progress of technology knows that high resolution photographs of just about anything are just around the corner. Those of us who lead spotless lives of immaculate virtue have no cause for concern: everyone is welcome to watch us as we go through our normal daily routine of providing assistance to widows and orphans.

If, on the other hand, publicly available photos of your private life might make you blush, beware. And before you do anything of which your mother, big brother or Bill Gates would not approve, just remember - we'll be watching!

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