Identifying ethical and unethical activities in gis

Identifying ethical and unethical activities in gis


Roger A Longhorn
Info-Dynamics Research Associates Ltd, UK
[email protected]

The discussion of ethics and ethical issues should be much more embedded in the training programmes for new entrants into the GIS profession and in the rules of good behaviour for GI and GIS associations, whether professional or trade bodies

discuss ethical issues for spatial information, we should define the term ‘ethics’ as this relates to a field of study somewhat removed from mainstream information science. Ethics refers to principles of human conduct, or morals, and to the systematic study of such human values, often called moral philosophy, the study of theories of conduct and goodness, and of the meanings of moral terms.

An act is considered to be ‘ethical’ if it is in accordance with approved moral behaviour or norms. Ethics implies civic responsibility on the part of citizens and responsibility by society’s institutions, including governments. Ethics is concerned with questions such as when is an action ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ and what standard separates ‘good’ from ‘bad’. We propose to accept one of the basic tenets of modern moral philosophy that the authority invoked for ‘good’ conduct is the rule of reason and that moral behaviour results from rational thought that does not harm the individual and leads ultimately to the greatest good for all individuals in a society. This definition and assumption equates well with the main issue of another debate driven partially by ethics, i.e. relating to public domain information, or more specifically public sector information that may not be in the public domain, as stated in recent UNESCO-backed guidelines regarding public sector information (Uhlir 2003):

“One of the ultimate goals of any society is the empowerment of all its citizens through access and use of information and knowledge. Every person and every nation must have equal opportunity to benefit from cultural diversity and scientific progress as a basic human right in the current information revolution and the emerging knowledge society”

A final complication arises from the observation that, while an individual’s personal ethics may determine ‘good’ or ‘bad’ behaviour in the eyes of that individual, use of information is governed by society as a whole, typically regulated by the government in power. The ethics of governments do not always reflect the ethical values of all of its citizens, nor remain constant over time, for example due to changes in government in multi-party states.

Polarization regarding information-related issues will not be easily resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, e.g. ‘free access to public sector information’ versus ‘the user pays principle’ or ‘location-based information may save my life’ versus ‘location-based information violates my personal privacy.’ What is a socially accepted standard (norm) in one society, and thus an ‘ethical’ practice, may be quite unacceptable in another, thus unethical. Even where the norm is not in question, e.g. personal privacy is highly important in society ‘A’, citizens of ‘A’ may be quite happy to have their privacy invaded if such an act will save lives, especially their own.

Ethics and GIS

Not much research has gone into the ethics of information than into almost any other aspect of information technology, use or information provision. Most of this type of research relates to abuse of information or ICT (information and communication technology) – by commerce, by governments, by individuals – especially in relation to harm caused by misinformation, breaking the rules governing IPR (intellectual property rights), or loss of personal privacy resulting from advances in ICT permitting ever greater data harvesting and integration from multiple sources, especially via online databases.

The International Cartographic Association in 1993 set up Special Committee on Social Theory. In 1997, 1998 and 2000, UNESCO sponsored a series of international conferences on information ethics, although there was no special focus on spatial information in any of these. Lengthy examination in the indexes of several GI and GIS textbooks and ‘recommended reading’ texts, in wide use throughout the GIS and GI Science academic community, in search of keywords relating to ethics or ethical issues, reveals virtually no mention of such issues in these texts, beyond limited references to certain legal issues relating to potential liability and IPR or data privacy and data protection legislation.

Specific GIS applications with strong ethical considerations include geodemographics, which has the ability to help invade personal privacy. With the advent of ever more interlinked Web portals and publicly available advanced search engines, the combination of GIS and Web technologies has opened up new routes by which privacy can be attacked for legitimate (law enforcement), illegitimate (cyberstalkers) and disputed reasons (unwanted direct marketing).