Thursday, April 17, 2008

One Nation Under Google

Google, Seeking To Diversify, Looks To Uncle Sam
By John Letzing

Rob Painter doesn't fit the typical profile of a Google Inc. employee. While many of the company's new workers are hired fresh from prestigious universities, Painter, the chief technologist for Google's federal business, has a background that includes stints with U.S. Special Operations and the intelligence community. He's also well removed from the company's Silicon Valley headquarters, working out of Washington, D.C. and Virginia.

But Painter's division -- selling souped-up versions of Google Earth satellite-image technology to military, intelligence and other government organizations -- is one of many smaller parts of the company that is becoming increasingly important as it seeks to expand beyond its traditional online-advertising business.

To the benefit of Google and other companies, a policy authorized by President Bush in 2003 [U.S. Commercial Remote Sensing Space Policy] specifically directed agencies to rely more on commercial satellite companies. Since then, the private sector also has become able to provide better imagery through advancing technology.

DigitalGlobe Inc., for example, a provider of images to Google Earth, launched a satellite last fall that boasts clear pictures of earthbound objects as small as 50 centimeters across.

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which collects and analyzes satellite imagery for national-security purposes, has awarded contracts to Google in the past. A spokesman for the NGA said Google Earth can be useful for everything from providing imagery during natural disasters to supporting the military in Iraq and Afghanistan. The NGA was established by the Central Intelligence Agency and Defense Department in the 1990s.

While versions of Google Earth sold to customers like the NGA do feature imagery accessible online by the public, Painter said that they can include enhancements such as more-frequent image updates and the means to quickly access and blend in the agencies' own specific data.

Google acquired a direct line into selling the product to U.S. intelligence agencies when it bought a startup in 2004 called Keyhole Inc. Keyhole was funded by In-Q-Tel, a venture-capital fund administered by the CIA, and its technology was rebranded as Google Earth.

"We're not only interested, we're the government agency that developed Google's technology and spun it off into the private sector," the NGA spokesman said. "We've had that stuff embedded in us since day one."

Painter, who served as director of technology assessment with In-Q-Tel, pointed out that connections developed during his years in government can be of use now, with his unit growing at brisk pace: "We're functionally more than tripling the team each year."

But Google faces a number of competitors in the market, including rival Microsoft Corp.'s Virtual Earth product. What's more, the NGA has developed its own technology, called Palanterra, which the NGA spokesman described as "exactly the same kind of system that allows you to look at a part of the world and have the maps and charts readily available along the lines of Google."

Google's contract opportunities may expand alongside a private sector progressively able to provide better satellite imagery. Its partner DigitalGlobe, for example, plans to launch a new satellite by the end of this year called WorldView-2, which is touted as a significant step forward.

"WorldView-2 will advance the state of the art ... by providing significantly expanded area coverage each day," said Steven Aftergood, a research analyst at the Federation of American Scientists. "It's a good bet that demand will follow supply."

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