How Geospatial Justice can restrain misuse of data against humanity

How Geospatial Justice can restrain misuse of data against humanity

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A photo of Child’s safety GPS Positioning Smart watch. LBS devices that are meant for children’s safety, pet tracking or keeping tabs on senior citizens can be misused. Such systems are also used to restrict and track convicted criminals out on parole.

This week I came across two articles that I thought I should share with our readers. The first, very provocatively titled Geoslavery, written by Jerome E. Dobson and Peter F. Fisher appeared in the IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, Spring 2003 while the other, an interview with Professor Yola Georgiadou titled Geo-ethics Requires Prudence with Private Data, appeared in GIM International. Both 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.

Geoslavery deals with the dangers of misuse of LBS devices that are meant to be used for children’s safety, pet tracking or keeping tabs on senior citizens. Such systems are also used to restrict and track convicted criminals out on parole. These are perfectly legitimate applications. However, these could also be misused 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.

LBS could be misused

Thus, LBS could be misused to deny Human Rights and in particular Women’s and Child 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 right of movement. The  Declaration of the Rights of the Child also imply 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. The second article addresses this aspect in a different manner. It recognises 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 unauthorised entities?

In fact, though Dr Georgiadou expresses confidence in authorized entities like governments, such a confidence is not fully justified. 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 massive scale, governments are trying to steer citizens towards healthier or more environmentally friendly behaviour 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.

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.

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; 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. Again, though these recommendations look useful they are potentially dangerous. There may be arcane laws that actually discourage data collection. 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. Secondly, a supervisor can become a gatekeeper. We have seen this in the case of National Mapping agencies. The third assertion is something the UN grappled with in its Principles of Remote Sensing and is more observed in its breach!

So where do we stand?

It is clear that governments and private entities are quite deep into the game of control and nudging. As 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 behaviour and influences us to vote for this person or to buy that product. So we are losing our freedom. We are instrumentalised. 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.”

Data must be for Humanity. To ensure this, we need to develop Geospatial Justice. Historically, most rules and regulations regarding geospatial systems and data collection are government and security oriented. This will no longer do. Geospatial Justice must place citizens at the centre, empower and not restrict them and take away their autonomy.