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EditorSpeak: The dilemma of new age sensing

Prof. Arup Dasgupta
Managing Editor
[email protected]

Data is the fuel that powers geospatial systems. Acquisition of accurate and reliable data thus becomes extremely important and this is where sensors play a signature role. While our eyes played this role for many years, today electronic sensors have widened the observable spectrum. Satellites have brought in the capabilities of synoptic viewing and repetitive coverage. From satellites, these versatile sensors have moved back to aerial and then the ground, thus completing a cycle, as it were. Sensing has also moved from proximate to remote and back to proximate as sensor networks. Multifunctional personal devices like cellphones and cameras now act as sensors, thus the individual users have also become sensors. In another twist in this connected world, individuals are sensors in more ways than one. As we surf the web, ‘like’ and ‘unlike’ items, ‘share’ and ‘comment’, we leave a trail which is assiduously followed by web marketers who now target advertisements tailored to our web presence. This is a kind of sensing that is neither remote nor proximate, uses no spectral signature but is nevertheless a very potent market force.

As sensors and sensing become more and more detailed and fine grained, they also run the danger of becoming insidious. Street view cameras are banned in many places due to privacy concerns and individual preferences and spending patterns lay bare our most personal details. On the flip side, we see that this kind of sensing also lays bare the wrongdoer, be it a usurper of government land or a con artist running an online phishing scam. How do we balance these needs and concerns? Do we shut ourselves up in a box or do we find ways of managing our information such that legitimate concerns are addressed and paranoia is avoided?

At national levels these are the concerns of many countries. With the coming of age of remote sensing and the Internet, each country has to balance its data needs against its national security. The problem lies in the fact that the sensed data is now useful not only for government departments but equally for individuals and groups. Policies which deny and negate are useless in this world of networks and communications. We need to look at new paradigms of data management with as much attention as we pay to new paradigms of data acquisition. Lawmakers and law enforcers need to be up-to-date with the new technologies as much as the scientists and engineers. Science, technology and law cannot exist in watertight compartments. Technology will not allow it.