“Location can be revealed in a variety of ways – a number...

“Location can be revealed in a variety of ways – a number of which we take for granted”

Kevin Pomfret, Executive Director, Centre for Spatial Law & Policy, USA
Kevin Pomfret
Executive Director
Centre for Spatial Law & Policy, USA

<< With satellite imagery just a click away, UAVs increasingly being used for civilian mapping applications, location data of anyone or any place easily obtainable – little wonder many defence experts and policymakers throughout the world are advocating regulation on the use and distribution of geodata. In a tête-à-tête with GeoIntelligence, Kevin Pomfret, Executive Director, Centre for Spatial Law & Policy, tells us why there is need for security agencies to re-look at the applicability of geospatial information… >>

Geolocation has never been as important as it is today. Be it for security, or during natural calamity or for gathering market intelligence for formulating business policies, geolocation is required for everything. Do you think policies have been able to keep up with the rapid technological changes that we are witnessing in this sector?
Policies have not been able to keep up with rapid technological advancements in geospatial technology. While this is not surprising, as policies and laws tend to lag behind technology, it is unfortunate. Moreover, I would argue that the policies are further behind geospatial technology than many other types of technology.

Many often argue that since geodata is very versatile, it can be used for a variety of purposes – both positive and negative. What would be your recommendation so that developmental needs are met and security is also not compromised?
Most technologies can be used in both positive and negative ways – cell phones or computers for example. So I think it would be unfair to treat technologies that collect, use or distribute geoinformation differently. That is not to suggest that there might not be some justifiable restrictions on use and/ or access to certain types of geoinformation, but such restrictions should be limited in scope and weighed against the opportunity costs associated with that information not being made available. Because information is so versatile, restricting access for one use often means it is not available for other uses as well. Too often that is not taken into account.

We have seen how defence budget cuts affected National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s (NGA) EnhancedView programme in the USA, thus leaving the organisation with no choice but to opt for just one company, DigitalGlobe for providing it imagery. Do you think it happened because policymakers have reservations towards the use of commercial satellite imagery for defence and intelligence purposes? If yes, what needs to be done in this regard?
It is important to keep in mind that the US government remains a significant consumer of commercial satellite imagery. Moreover, there were a number of factors that contributed to changes in the EnhancedView programme.

However, I do think that a lack of appreciation within the US government in the value of high resolution commercial satellite imagery was a contributing factor. One step to raise awareness of its value would be to make it easier for civilian agencies to get access to the imagery. In the past, civilian agencies have experienced difficulties in obtaining the imagery, even though it is unclassified and paid in full. NGA has taken steps to improve access for civilian agencies, so hopefully such awareness will increase.

Another step is for policymakers to recognise the economic value of geolocation. For example, according to a recent report by the Boston Consulting Group, the geospatial industry generated USD 73 billion in revenues in 2011 and at least 500,000 high-wage jobs in the US alone. The industry itself is on track to grow by 25 per cent or more over the next 5 years. The broader US economy also depends heavily on this technology. For example, US business leaders estimated that geospatial drives USD 1.6 trillion in revenue, and USD 1.4 trillion in cost savings, per year.

World over, unmanned aerial vehicles are in demand for various civilian mapping applications. Imagery collected through aerial vehicles is likely to heighten the perceived security risks, thus resulting in increased efforts to regulate the collection and use of imagery. How is the US dealing with this challenge? What do you think will be the potential problems when UAVs start flying?
As with other types of technology, everyone agrees that UAVs should not be used to infringe an individual’s privacy and do harm to others. In fact, I would imagine that most jurisdictions in the US already have laws and policies in place that would punish those who use UAVs for such purposes.

However, for a variety of reasons UAVs have become lightening rod for both sides of the political spectrum. As a result, there is a growing trend in the US to try to legislate or regulate this issue before UAVs are broadly in use. Much of this is occurring at the state level. My concern is that these laws and policies will be overly broad or so restrictive that they will have unintended consequences.

While commercial satellite companies are playing an important role in collection and supply of satellite imageries, how can countries ensure that these companies do not provide data about their sensitive areas to other countries? Is there any provision in this regard?
I think it is unrealistic for governments to think that they can limit information being collected about their territory. This has been happening for a number of years and has been sanctioned through such initiatives as the UN Principles of Remote Sensing and the Open Skies Treaty. Instead of trying to fight collection, in most cases it would be more productive for governments to determine how this information can be best used to serve their citizens and to address critical trans-national issues such as sustainable development.

Policymakers and citizens are concerned about the possibility of location data being extracted from smartphones without the user’s knowledge or permission. We have seen that happen in the past. What has been done or should be done to ensure that companies do not compromise the privacy of individuals for their profits?

First, I think we must better understand what privacy means to us from a location standpoint. Moreover, it is not easy to define ‘location’ in a legal context; our location can be revealed in a variety of ways – a number of which we take for granted. For example, recently there was a newspaper article about a person complaining that a street level image of his house was available on the internet. He said he was concerned because there had been some burglaries recently in the neighbourhood and the image would make it more likely for him to be robbed. However, the same article – also distributed over the internet – mentioned his name, age, business title, city and even his neighbourhood. It also included an image which although blurred showed enough information to make the house identifiable. Location information regarding the individual can be determined from both sources of information, but many people take one type for granted and worry about the other. It will be difficult to develop transparent and technology-neutral laws without a better understanding of what the privacy risk is being protected and why.

Right from tracking people to analysing their behaviour, the potential of geospatial technology is enormous. It is because of this power of technology that many policymakers believe that precise geolocation information is sensitive and should be subjected to greater protection. Your take.
The power of the technology is undoubtedly part of the reason as the geolocation information collected from mobile devices raises a number of privacy considerations. But just as big – if not bigger – reason is that the technology and many of the applications are new. This makes people uncomfortable. It also seems to result in people focusing on the perceived risks rather than the potential benefits. Currently, there are discussions taking place in legislative bodies around the world on this important issue. It is important for the geospatial community to begin to take a more active role in this discussion. Otherwise, we may find that laws and policies that develop do not adequately take into consideration the benefits of geospatial technology.