What is Geospatial Justice and why it is needed?

What is Geospatial Justice and why it is needed?


Geospatial Systems offer drastic transformations in the field of technology that have immense potential to change human lives, but the flip side of the coin is the alarming possibility of its misuse.

Geospatial systems is an important arm of Information Technology that adds the element of spatial location to general IT services. integration of GPS, GIS, remote sensing and sensor networks with modern mobile communications enables services which could be imagined only in science fiction.

Myriad applications of geospatial systems

Baby care centers provide personalized Internet links to working parents so that they can keep an ‘eye’ on their children while at work. Elderly living alone can be monitored over the Internet through indoor mapping, movement and sound activated cameras and RFID. In addition, they can be monitored for their health parameters and reminded to take their medicines on time, go for a walk (which can be tracked) or take a nap. Pets can be tracked as well. The same technology also tracks criminals out on parole. IoT will take this further and enable the control of appliances including healthcare instruments in homes. Remotely controlled robots can take the place of human caregivers for routine tasks.

A new revolution or a nightmare?

Into this Sci-Fi world enters a rude reality that such systems can also be used to oppress and dominate weaker people. Each of the technologies outlined above can also be used for illegal surveillance and control. A paper, very provocatively titled Geoslavery, written by Jerome E. Dobson and Peter F. Fisher which appeared in the IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, Spring 2003 deals with the dangers of misuse of LBS devices to control people. For example, by adding an element of feedback, which could be administering a shock, a person could be controlled, in effect turning the individual into a slave. While this may appear far-fetched, even in 2003 such technology was available across the counter in many countries. What is worse is that even without such feedback the LBS could be used to track a person’s movements and punishment could be meted out later if the track showed a visit to ‘forbidden’ places.

The figure shows how computer applications can be used to persuade individuals to ‘fall in line’. This figure is taken from an announcement of the First Workshop on Persuasive Technology and Society held on August 8, 2017, at the University of Wollongong, Australia.

Professor Yola Georgiadou, in an interview titled Geo-ethics Requires Prudence with Private Data, published in GIM International, addresses this aspect in a different manner. She recognizes that in a digital world we leave our digital presence in many places to be used quite legitimately by the intended recipients, but what if these find their way to unauthorized entities?

In fact, though Dr Georgiadou expresses confidence in authorized entities like governments; such a confidence is not fully justified.

The governmental ‘nudge’

In an article in Scientific American, “Will Democracy Survive Big Data and Artificial Intelligence?” by Dirk Helbing, et al, states, “These technologies are also becoming increasingly popular in the world of politics. Under the label of “nudging,” and on a massive scale, governments are trying to steer citizens towards healthier or more environmentally friendly behavior by means of a “nudge” — a modern form of paternalism. The new, caring government is not only interested in what we do, but also wants to make sure that we do the things that it considers to be right. The magic phrase is “big nudging”, which is the combination of Big Data with nudging. To many, this appears to be a sort of digital scepter (sic) that allows one to govern the masses efficiently, without having to involve citizens in democratic processes. Could this overcome vested interests and optimize (sic) the course of the world? If so, then citizens could be governed by a data empowered “wise king”, who would be able to produce desired economic and social outcomes almost as if with a digital magic wand.”

In fact, an interesting WhatsApp post doing the rounds in India talks of taking care not to discuss controversial matters on social media as the government is snooping into all these platforms! This is unverified and most likely untrue but what is important is to note that common citizens are aware of and discussing such a possibility. The fact that common citizens miss is that this information is already available to the operators of the social media platforms and is being used to promote ads and direct specific posts depending on individual preferences and tendencies. Facebook has admitted the latter using their AI tools.

Dr Georgiadou is not so much worried about governments in developed countries because they have developed a strong data security policy but more about data brokers on whom we have no control and who are not accountable to us. Typically, a high-resolution
UAV record of land holdings can be used to secure a person’s property but in the wrong hands could enable land grabbing. She feels that three aspects need to be addressed while gathering data. First it should be relevant to a specific context and under explicit laws; second, data collection should be done under the control of a supervisor and third, the consent of those on whom data is being collected should be sought.

Data security, privacy and state regulations

Though these recommendations look useful they are potentially dangerous. There are arcane laws that actually discourage data collection. For example, there are countries which have banned the use of GPS and drones are being put under various controls. Data may be gathered for a specific purpose but if not reused for other applications, will result in data duplication. Remotely sensed data becomes more useful and cheap through reuse. Therefore this will actually push up the cost of such data if reuse is not allowed. Secondly, a supervisor can become a gatekeeper. We have seen this in the case of National Mapping agencies and to some extent with government controlled data distributors. The third assertion of permission to collect data is something the UN grappled with in its Principles of Remote Sensing and is more observed in its breach!

These articles, separated by 14 years and written by renowned geospatial professionals, are thought-provoking because they raise an issue we tend to brush under the carpet; the security and privacy of individuals in an uncontrolled, data-rich environment.
However, such an environment is also needed for legitimate commercial and administrative purposes. Proponents of the theory that data is the panacea for all ills in society and the environment are all for collecting data by mapping every centimeter of the Earth’s surface and geotagging every object, animate and inanimate to the IoT. On the other hand, such massive spatial databases will be very difficult to manage in terms of its safety from misuse. Safety is sought to be enforced through several means but biometrics is supposed to be the best to ensure the safety of an individual’s personal data.

Or is it? In a piece appearing in The Guardian in December 2014 an ethical hacker addressing the Chaos Communication Congress, an annual meeting of hackers in Germany, showed how she could ‘steal’ the fingerprint of the German Defence Minister using commercial software, VeriFinger. The same report also revealed that a software called Corneal Keylogger can access a smartphone front-facing camera and collect the iris pattern.

A file photo of an Aadhaar center. Safety is sought to be enforced through several means but biometrics is supposed to be the best to ensure the safety of an individual’s personal data.

A third concern is not so much security and privacy but loss of identity. In an article in IEEE T&S Magazine of March 2015 Usha Ramanathan points out that biometrics are not very dependable particularly in cases where people are engaged in manual labor or in case of people suffering from eye conditions like cataract. Unfortunately, these conditions are most prevalent among the poor. Ramanathan’s forebodings are coming true as some people in India are being denied access to the Public Distribution System because their fingerprints do not match.

Geoslavery – the potential of misuse and abuse

So where do we stand? The article on Geoslavery states that LBS could be misused to deny Human Rights and in particular Women’s and Children’s Rights. The article goes on to quote UN resolutions dealing with such misuse.

Articles 4, 5 and 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights address specific issues of slavery, cruelty and restriction of the right of movement. The Declaration of the Rights of the Child also implies such restrictions. At national levels, the study suggests that electronic tracking may be brought under the laws prohibiting stalking and implanting tracking devices could be brought under the ban on human branding.

The issue is not technology per se but its misuse, according to both articles. The article on Geoslavery insists that technology developers, marketers and deployers should recuse themselves if they feel that the technology is likely to endanger human rights. They further felt that precision GPS data should be restricted to specific users through a process of licensing. This is what is being followed by Galileo, IRNSS and QZSS and will require special receivers to access the high precision services.

Elderly living alone can be monitored over the Internet through indoor mapping, movement and sound activated cameras and RFID. In addition, they can be monitored for their health parameters and reminded to take their medicines on time, go for a walk, etc.

This is not enough. When it comes to geospatial systems there are many regulations but all these are oriented towards government processes. Take the case of UAVs. The laws start from a simple ‘No, you cannot fly UAVs’ to ‘you can fly but…’ followed by restrictions on weight, height, line of sight, payloads and no-fly zones which are almost always strategic assets. Where the laws which protect individuals and more importantly what are the avenues of redressal where human rights to privacy, security and identity are violated? Street views may blur car number plates and human faces but how secure is the original data?

Empowering citizens or a surveillance machinery?

The Scientific American article concludes, “We are at the historic moment, where we have to decide on the right path—a path that allows us all to benefit from the digital revolution.” Dr Georgiadou feels that data must not only be used so that it does no harm but it should empower people to make decisions autonomously. She concludes, “The world has changed. Big corporations are determining our lives much more than before. They are becoming more powerful than nation states and the data they collect about us, without us noticing, may be used to influence us. This takes away our freedom and our fundamental right to make decisions for ourselves, autonomously and with the people we love, and not because somebody predicts our behavior and influences us to vote for this person or to buy that product. So we are losing our freedom. We are instrumentalized. We are becoming products. We have to be aware of that – not just in our personal life, but also in our professional life because it influences that as well.”

Which path will allow us all to benefit from the geospatial digital revolution? Data must be collected and used for humanity, for a ‘better quality of life’. The freedom to make decisions that Dr Georgiadou talks of must not be compromised. Citizens cannot be treated as passive beneficiaries but must become active participants in the decision making process as a matter of right.

To ensure this we need to develop Geospatial Justice which will place the citizen at its focus and enact enforceable laws and establish viable processes of redressal when individual freedom, security, privacy and identity are violated deliberately or inadvertently. It is not enough that scientists and technologists recuse themselves from the development of systems which might be misused. They have to be proactive and ensure that such systems are not developed or if developed, are regulated to protect individual freedom.