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Ethics And Geospatial Surveillance

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In this paper, ethics on geospatial technology is reviewed.

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Ethics And Geospatial Surveillance

  1. 1. Running head: ETHICS AND GEOSPATIAL 1 Ethics and Geospatial Surveillance Tamara Mitchell Western Oregon University
  2. 2. ETHICS AND GEOSPATIAL 2 Ethics and Geospatial Surveillance Is Big Brother watching? Government surveillance, cheaper than ever before, increasingly resembles something out of George Orwell’s 1984. From the NSA’s national database of phone calls to concerns over privacy and mobile mapping devices, issues relating to surveillance are more personal and increasingly individualized. Ethical considerations relating to geospatial surveillance can be categorized into three core issues which are as important as they are brawny. First, ethical considerations extend beyond awareness and consent to concerns over constitutional rights. Second, geospatial technologies are directly connected to an erosion of privacy in modern society. Third, relationships between governmental entities and private industry are strained as access and control over geospatial data is restricted. At the heart of the debate are ethical considerations. Awareness, consent, and constitutional rights are at the heart of a debate about ethical considerations relating to surveillance. More than a few theorists and officials have attempted to determine the best methods and codes for guiding and restricting surveillance practices. The GIS Certification Institute created a Code of Ethics to provide means for defining ethical guidelines and reporting unethical behavior (2014). In addition to groups, individuals have attempted to define and enforce ethical surveillance practices. Matt Artz attempts to define the problem in his blog “GIS and Science.” Although transparency and harmlessness are two actionable guidelines suggested by Matt Artz (2009) to shape a dialogue relating to surveillance, Wu et al explain that awareness and consent are better guidelines because they can be used to “evaluate proposed methods” (Wu et al, 2008). Still, the best guidelines recognize and protect natural rights – Gary Marx cites the First, Fourth, and Fifth amendments as central to “respect for the personhood, dignity and autonomy of the individual” (1999). Harlan J. Onsrud sees the issue as a debate
  3. 3. ETHICS AND GEOSPATIAL 3 between law and ethics (2008). Privacy in modern society seems to be a balancing act between the greater good for public safety (law) and concerns for individual autonomy (ethics). For this reason, geospatial surveillance can be connected to an erosion of privacy in modern society. Harlan J. Onsrud (2008) explains that globalization makes it “far more challenging to protect personal information privacy.” Although Onsrud (2008) applauds the Geo Data Commons site which allows equal access to geospatial data online, one might wonder whether more restrictions should be implemented for sharing geospatial data than for sharing an iTunes song. Less restrictive intellectual property regimes may work for intellectual data, but what about highly sensitive geospatial data? Consider the meta data in a photograph or the location data embedded in a social media post. Or, consider the intel that can be collected by drones. Lynch and Foote (2015) warn of the capabilities of drones to erode privacy, and applaud over forty states which have enacted laws restricting the use of drones. In fact, surveillance can extend beyond drones to a variety of other devices with remote sensing capabilities. From using satellites to sense the moisture levels in soil to pinpointing an individual’s locating using his phone, surveillance capabilities increase as privacy decreases. Access and control over geospatial data continues to strain relationships between the government and private industry and individuals. In December 2016, Twitter stopped selling personal geospatial data to police intelligence centers (Brandom, 2016). Twitter’s decision was based on the implementation of a new privacy policy founded on ethical concerns (Brandom, 2016). However, improper use and access to geospatial data can be connected with government abuses. In addition to private geospatial data, the debate continues over what is a matter of public record. In the legal case Zinn vs State, the USGS map was used to define state and private
  4. 4. ETHICS AND GEOSPATIAL 4 property lines. However, the map did not have sufficient detail. As a result of the misuse of geospatial data some private lands were seized as government lands (Lynch, Foote, 2015). As a whole, access to geospatial surveillance data is even more complicated under the Freedom of Information Act (Lynch, Foot, 2015) as individuals have access but not control over their public records. The complexity of data access is echoed by Onsrud who feels that simply relying on restrictive laws will not sufficiently address ethical issues relating to geospatial surveillance. Although the ethical problems connected to geospatial surveillance is documented, the solutions are far too complex for a simple answer. Awareness and consent drive debates over surveillance ethics. Individuals lose rights to privacy as geospatial surveillance increases. Governmental and private industry relationships are strained as large organizations push for access to geospatial data. Current governmental codes and the Code of Ethics from the GIS Certification Institute are only part of the answer. Certainly, the ethical issues relating to geospatial surveillance require continued attention.
  5. 5. ETHICS AND GEOSPATIAL 5 References A GIS Code of Ethics. (2014). Retrieved February 16, 2017 from Artz, M. (2009, May 22). Applying Geospatial Technology to Global Design: Ethical Considerations. Retrieved February 19, 2017, from ethical-considerations/ Brandom, R. (2016, December 15). Twitter cuts off geospatial data access for police intelligence centers. Retrieved February 16, 2017 from geospatial-data-surveillance Lynch, M., & Foote, K. E. (2015). Legal Issues Relating to GIS. Retrieved February 16, 2017 from Marx, G. T. (1999, November 1). An Ethics For The New Surveillance. Retrieved February 18, 2017 from Onsrud, H. J. (2008, Fall). ArcNews Fall 2008 Issue -- Implementing Geographic Information Technologies Ethically. Retrieved February 16, 2017 from Wu, T., Chung, J., Yamat, J., & Richman, J. (2008, July). The Ethics (or not) of Massive Government Surveillance. Retrieved February 18, 2017 from