Here are five things you should know about WiFi balloons and what they mean for your online privacy:
1. Erasing the “Digital Divide” and Increasing Internet Access. Dubbed “Project Loon,” the network of balloons will travel on the edge of space. It will connect people in rural and remote areas, help fill coverage gaps, and bring people back online after disasters, according to Google executives. Google estimates that two-thirds of the global population is without fast, affordable Internet access — and this project could make a difference to many people around the world.
2. How High? Once released, the balloons will float in the stratosphere above 60,000 feet, twice as high as airplanes and the weather, Google says. Their altitude will be controlled from “Loon Mission Control” using special software to allow them to pick up layers of wind traveling in the right direction and form a balloon network.
3. How Many People Can Connect? Here’s where this idea starts to worry privacy experts and consumer privacy advocates. According to Google, hundreds of people will be able to connect to one balloon at a time. The balloons are equipped with antennas with specialized radio frequency technology, Google says, and each one can provide connectivity to a ground area about 25 miles. The potential for hacking seems astronomical and makes Google’s pie-in-the-sky idea seem downright dangerous for consumers’ online privacy. Is Google taking steps to encrypt the world’s Internet access, too? We didn’t think so. And has everyone forgotten about the backlash and millions of dollars in fines against Google for illegally recording signals from Wifi networks while it was taking photographs for its Street View service?
4. Digital Guinea Pigs. Who has signed up to test that these balloons actually work and won’t come crashing down on their homes? After all, the balloons are controlled by just wind and solar power to control them up or down! Clearly this experiment is new and will involve huge communities of citizens. This past week, Google started a pilot program in the Canterbury area of New Zealand with 50 testers trying to connect to the balloons. Google launched 30 balloons and tried to connect to this many receivers on the ground. Google admits it’s “going to learn a lot that will help us improve our technology and balloon design.”
5. Are the Balloons Altruistic or Greedy? Google is the world’s largest advertising network. The expansion of Google (via balloons!) around the world means more people relying on Google search, which in turn boosts the company’s ability to charge for advertisements and work with data brokers. But Google executives don’t talk about their ad network; instead, they talk about how the technology might allow countries to leapfrog the expense of installing fiber-optic cable, dramatically increasing Internet usage in places such as Africa and Southeast Asia. “It’s a huge moonshot, a really big goal to go after,” said Google Wi-Fi Balloon project leader Mike Cassidy. “The power of the Internet is probably one of the most transformative technologies of our time.” Although covering the whole world would require thousands of balloons — and no timetable has been set for that — it seems that Google will find a way when there is money to be made off of consumers’ sensitive data.