Archive for the ‘surveillance’ Category


Friday, March 2nd, 2012

I have heard much about location based services lately and prior to reading this paper had merely thought of it as Google Maps on a smartphone. It was interesting to read more about it and the issues it faces particularly that of privacy and surveillance. As my pseudonym suggests, I enjoy being outside not merely because it is nicer than being inside but partly because nobody knows where I am when I go outside and go hiking or canoeing etc. As mentioned in class, few people recognize location privacy and freedom and fewer still realize is being lost.

Before the advent of cell phones and the internet, if someone wanted to find out where you were going they needed to ask you. Today, they may not need to. They could just see if they have you on Foursquare, if you’ve updated your Twitter location or posted your plans of Facebook. Who says they even need to be good friends to be able to do this? You may have met them once or twice at a school activity etc. and thought you might want to stay in touch with them but they now have access to a huge amount of information about you and particularly your location. This leads to the importance of privacy not only in relation to strangers but perhaps also to acquaintances; you may have met them but do you really want them aware of your every move, literally?

Privacy with respect to strangers, institutions, governments etc. is even harder to obtain as these bodies do not need to know you to obtain your information. In the case of governments and institutions, they may obtain it by attempting to order it be given to them by the companies. In the case of strangers, hacking is not uncommon. It seems to me with one’s location being updated and distributed online or even via a phone, it would be all too easy for someone to follow that person, learn their habits etc. and could be dangerous to their personal security.

The Yao article mentions there are efforts in place to try to create frameworks for increasing security but that these have so far been limited with few studies performed. I feel that much more time and energy should be put into increasing security but that perhaps users should be educated on privacy issues from a young age when they begin using LBS technology so that they are aware of exactly how accessible the information they post online may be to those who are looking for it.

-Outdoor Addict

Evil 2.0: Surveillance, Tracking and Privacy with the “New GIS on the Block”

Friday, February 10th, 2012

Geospatial technology, and GIS in particular, have long been associated with the war effort.  To label GIS as part of the war machine is not my intention in this post, but to highlight the similarities between this new generation of Geospatial web and the old GIS standard that we’ve all come to love and hate.  What is referred to as the new geospatial web includes geovisualization Applications such as Google Maps, Google Earth and Open Street Map.

In her paper entitled “Geographic Information Science”, Elwood states that to certain scholars view this new generation of “not-quite GIS” as a continuation and proliferation of old military ideas of GIS, namely in her article being new ways of tracking individuals, exclusion from events and other situations as well as what I feel to be most important, steadily decreasing privacy protection. Starting with older social networks such as Hi5, Xanga and MySpace, and then most noticeably with Facebook, we have been steadily sharing more and more information about ourselves on the web.

With the recent widespread use of Google Maps and other geo-visualization technologies such as foursquare, we are now publicizing our very position down to the (x,y) co-ordinates, at a rate which is alarming at best, and perhaps disturbing at worst.  This geospatial information can be used to find you, stalk you and even abduct you, if some government agency ever desired so.  Perhaps in a less serious note, this can be used to determine when you are not at home and your daily patterns, such that someone would be able to break into your home and have a generally good idea as to whether or not you’ll be home.

In her paper, Elwood give an example of a website called, where users are encouraged to submit information about their neighbour’s bad habits and unkindly activities to be published on an application based off of the Google Maps API.  The idea of posting info on your neighbours online could be damaging to the poster’s reputation if the comments were able to be traced back to their origin.

I personally feel that this over-zealous sharing of spatial information is alarming, as users seem not to be aware of the dangers inherent in publicizing your location information.  When combined with geo-visualization technologies and applications such as Google Maps and particularly Foursquare and Google Latitude (whose whole purpose is to let other know where you are at any given time).

The link below contains a satirical video created by the Onion News Network (A satirical news network known for portraying fake news in a matter-of-fact way.  This video makes reference to facebook being an application developed by the CIA to harvest personal information about users and save the CIA money and man-hours in the field. It is a comical look at how crazy it is that we continually post personal information on the ever-public interwebz.

CIA’s ‘Facebook’ Program Dramatically Cut Agency’s Costs



What About Privacy in Data?

Thursday, February 9th, 2012

Sarah Elwood posits that rapid change took hold of geospatial technologies over the last five years, with the “emergence of a wide array of new technologies that enable an ever-expanding range of individuals and social groups to create and disseminate maps and spatial data” (256). Elwood does an admirable job of fielding some of the pros and cons that stem from this revolution in technology. In particular, she covers changing power relationships as new groups are empowered by creating data, the possible limitations of existing spatial data models and analytical operations, and how problems with the heterogeneity of the data might make it difficult to support across users or platforms (interoperability).

However, her most important alarm bell, I believe, comes when she writes “that the growing ubiquity of geo-enabled devices and the ‘crowd sourcing’ of spatial information supported by Google Maps fuels exponential growth in digital data, and growing availability of data about everyday phenomena that have never been available digitally, nor from so many peoples and places” (257). What happens when governments use this data to spy on citizens or when individuals use this data for the wrong purposes? The United States government clearly has no compunction about monitoring its own citizens (if you follow recent politics there). Elwood, herself, pays short shrift to what this might mean for the privacy of users and, even, just the public caught up in “everyday phenomena.” She notes that some scholars have raised the question of whether or not the rise of these technologies constitute new forms of “surveillance, exclusion and erosion of privacy” (257) but quickly moves on to the exciting promise of these technologies.

In particular, Elwood appears enamored of the potential of these technologies to reveal new social and political truths (261). Yet, as we noted in our IPhone conversation in class, these technologies might be used inappropriately to track us without our knowledge. Individuals in a democratic society have an undeniable right to privacy, but how can they use these new technologies and software and still be sure that their privacy is respected and their data remains anonymous (if needed)? Should some type of system or regulations be put in place to ensure this right? Something like this has been tried in Europe, but what are the lessons? I’m not sure.


Use of Digital Earths for Good and Evil

Friday, December 18th, 2009

CH, from Intro GIS, continues our surveillance posts

Google Earth is a virtual globe that contains fairly high resolution images of certain locations on the globe. A multi-featured version of Google Earth has been freely available to the public since its release several years ago. Users can browse the entire globe where they can search and zoom into cities, places of interest and specific addresses. Anyone who has the minimum requirements necessary to run Google Earth, can use it however they please. This unrestricted use of Google Earth may pose an alarming security threat. Although certain government facilities are hidden on it, terrorists and criminals have used what is available to commit crimes with precision and efficiency thanks to the satellite pictures. It is alarming that a group like the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade have admitted to using this freeware to plan and execute attacks on Israel. The use of Google Earth for attacks like this is one of the results of such accurate, complex imagery being provided for anyone and everyone to access.

Another example of when this information has been accessed by the wrong people was the 2008 Mumbai terror attack on two luxury hotels. The terrorists responsible were able to familiarize themselves with the area of their attack that left 171 dead. There is no question that without free programs such as Google Earth, terrorist attacks will not stop, but they simply make it that much easier for the terrorists to carry out such attacks. It makes sense to block out sensitive information and images; however, this alone will not prevent the ability to plan attacks on the public. It would be far to difficult for authorities or Google to screen each user, every time they look something up. This would also raise privacy issues for the common user. The concept of virtual earths is a complicated one that will always have safety and privacy issues due to the function it performs.

all eyes on North Korea

Thursday, December 17th, 2009

Though stringent border security and diplomatic isolation may give North Korea the reputation of a “hermit kingdom,” geospatial technology allows Westerners, from the comfort of their personal computers, to view past the smiling gymnasts of the Pyongyang Mass Games and explore the workings of the world’s most secretive society. An initiative called North Korea Uncovered uses Google Earth as a platform for mapping North Korea’s features- from power lines to government offices to forced labor camps. Since it launched in May 2007, the project has added features successively to their publicly-available map. The latest version, released in June 2009, contains thousands of point, line, and polygon features sorted into dozens of layer categories and hundreds of subcategories. As a mashup, the project maintains active links between locations on the map and online information resources; for example, at the mapped entrance to Labor Camp 15, users can click on a link to a Youtube video containing footage of the camp.

To supplement Google Earth’s remotely sensed images of North Korea (most of which come from SPOT), the project matches higher-resolution aerial photos and maps to the ground layer of satellite imagery. For instance, see the image embedded below containing a high-resolution photo of Camp 15 matched to the SPOT satellite graphic.

The creators of the project are receptive to user-contributed content. Because very few members of the general public have access to information on North Korea, most information comes from self-selecting experts including former members of the US military, political researchers, and North Korean expatriates. Curtis Melvin, who began the project, cross-checks all submitted information to maintain the site’s credibility and accuracy. Information is contributed to the system in a method known as “crowd sourcing.” When the project was launched, the directors posted it on relevant websites in an effort to attract attention and information from the “crowd,” or unidentified public. The submitted information becomes the property of the project itself, rather than the submitter. Many nonprofit internet information projects use this same model, as do many private businesses (which sometimes even offer financial rewards for information submissions). The key uniqueness and power of crowd sourcing is that, by encouraging any member of the informed public to contribute their knowledge, valuable information can come from sources the project organizers would never have known to consult.

The implications of a project like “North Korea Uncovered” shake our notions of power structure in the age of the Internet. Thanks to the simple technique of crowd sourcing and the knowledge of scattered members of the public, anybody with access to the Internet can view information which a totalitarian regime has dedicated itself to restricting. However, questions must be drawn to Google’s role in disseminating and controlling such information. With its history of catering to China’s demands on restricting information, can users rely on Google Earth to provide a groundwork for information sharing of a controversial nature? If a similar project called “The US Army Uncovered” were initiated by members of the public to investigate conditions at US war prisons, would Google make its system equally available to their use? It is ironic that in this age of information overload, crowd sourcing, and public data sharing via the Internet, we still rely on either private corporations or government agencies, in spite of their priorities or agendas, to provide us mediums for information exchange such as Digital Earths and search engines.

From JL, Intro GIS

Technology as Accomplice: The use of GIS in criminal activity

Wednesday, December 2nd, 2009

Last month, GIS and satellite imagery made international news when it was shown that a group of teenaged burglars who are being called the “Bling Ring” used voyeuristic websites dedicated to celebrities as a tool to take jewelry from stars’ homes. These burglars monitored victims through gossip sites like TMZ and studied their houses from satellite imagery available online.

One site used by the burglars that has come under great scrutiny was Torontonian David Ruppel’s The site offers “unprecedented access to the sort of lifestyle your favorite celebrity can afford” as well as satellite images of these homes and information on their layout.

While various applications of GIS have been used in crime prevention—by police mapping out better routes based on the frequency of crime during certain times of day or year, or by citizens reporting crimes via Google Earth pushpins—the use of this same technology by criminals is a legitimate concern.

In an interview with the Toronto Star, David Ruppel defended his use of satellite imagery for profit as simply a modern version of a “star map.” He professes no guilt about providing critical information to the Bling Ring, nor about using technology to surveil the lives of stars.

When people debate whether or not certain uses for GIS constitute an invasion of privacy, it is often in a theoretical sense. Arguments made reference “Big Brother” and often hinge on slippery slope fallacies. In a recent L.A. Times editorial on the burglaries, the columnist claims that “it’s not long before a satellite is capable of zooming in on a nude sunbather inside his or her own fenced backyard.” While that comes off as a bit absurd, these burglaries are a concrete, demonstrable situation in which the use of satellite imagery had a negative impact on the lives of individuals.

In weighing the benefits of public access to GIS technologies against harm caused by crimes like these, there are a few key questions: By making surveillance of victims easier, does GIS technology—like satellite imagery or Google’s new Latitude application that tracks your real-time location—encourage crime? Would these crimes still have transpired? Did GIS give the criminals advantages they wouldn’t have had otherwise?

From AF, Intro GIS

La Géocriminologie

Tuesday, December 9th, 2008

Merci pour la post, SD.

Qui aurait cru un jour que la sécurité publique serait en grande partie entre les mains des cartographes? De nos jours, les agences gouvernementales en matière de sécurité publique font souvent appel aux professionnels des systèmes d’information géographique. Leur dessein principal est simple: mettre la technologie à leur service afin d’augmenter la sécurité publique. Compte tenu que nous sommes présentement dans un contexte international instable où le terrorisme effraye beaucoup de gens, les sommes investies dans la géocriminologie atteignent à notre époque des sommets. Mais ces investissements en valent-ils vraiment la peine? Lumière sur la géographie criminologique, communément appelée «crime mapping».

Avec l’arrivée des micro-ordinateurs au cours de la décennie 1980, la géocriminologie a pris une ampleur sans précédent. Définissons d’abord ce terme: la géocriminologie est grosso modo l’utilisation de systèmes d’information géographique et de la cartographie au sein d’une recherche et analyse criminologique. Comme l’affirme Claire Cunty, géographe et chef de conférence à l’Université Lumière à Lyon, on peut scinder sa définition en deux spécialités distinctes. La première n’a trait qu’aux résultats généraux d’ordre statistique (cartes synoptiques). La seconde utilisation concerne plus spécialement la traque individuelle (analyse comportementale facilitant l’appréhension du criminel en question). Habituellement, trois variables géographiques sont utilisés: le lieu du crime, l’origine de l’agresseur et celle de la victime.

Ainsi, en pratique, l’utilisation du «crime mapping» peut s’avérer extrêmement avantageuse et profitable pour les corps policiers. Toutefois, il n’en est pas ainsi dans tous les pays. À titre d’exemple, la législation française interdit la divulgation publique de l’adresse d’un criminel potentiel. En conséquence, seule la localisation des faits est l’objet d’analyses et de recherches. En opposition, aux États-Unis, où l’État ne limite pas l’accès aux adresses des criminels, des études ont conclu que les auteurs d’infraction, afin d’éviter d’éventuels soupçons, commettent que très rarement leurs mauvaises actions près de chez eux, sans toutefois se déplacer à plusieurs kilomètres de distance. L’exploitation maximale des données fournies permet donc aux cartographes, conjointement avec les criminologues, d’analyser les données spatiales qui, au final, résulte en un polygone délimitant une zone dans laquelle la résidence du criminel est susceptible d’être. Par ailleurs, en perfectionnant les analyses, en les comparant les unes aux autres et en établissant des corrélations liées à la criminologie, il est possible de dégager une certaine topographie caractéristique à chaque type de crime, de sorte que la véracité ainsi que l’exactitude des polygones sont de plus en plus justes.

Néanmoins, alors que l’utilisation des systèmes d’information géographique en criminologie semble avoir des conséquences miraculeuses quant à la résolution de crimes, une question d’ordre éthique me vient à l’esprit. Bien que l’exploitation des données spatiales géographiques soit très utile aux corps policiers, va-t-on trop loin dans la diffusion d’information personnelle? Par exemple, les autorités gouvernementales de plusieurs états des États-Unis ont pris la décision de rendre publique sur le web, dans l’optique de protéger leur population, des cartes géographiques indiquant clairement le lieu de résidence de personnes ayant été condamnées de viol, des « sex offenders ». À quel point pouvons-nous divulguer des informations personnelles au nom de la prévention? Je crois qu’il faut garder en mémoire que la géocriminologie ne détient pas la vérité absolue. Les logiciels informatiques peuvent indiquer des corrélations, susciter des réflexions ou des interrogations, mais ils ne peuvent en aucun cas servir de preuves uniques, certaines et indubitables.

Alors que l’utilisation et surtout la diffusion publique de la géocriminologie ne fait pas l’unanimité, les progrès dans ce domaine, quant à eux, sont tangibles. Maintenant, la géocriminologie n’est plus seulement une affaire concernant les cartographes ainsi que les criminologues, elle met dorénavant en scène des acteurs tels que des sociologues, des psychologues, etc. Le travail d’analyse et d’interprétation des données spatiales dépassent désormais les cadres de la géographie.

The United States Postal Service is Now a Crime Fighting Squad?

Thursday, December 4th, 2008

Submitted by TP

GIS technology is now being used by the United States Postal Service (USPS) Bank Service (BSA) Compliance Office to detect suspicious activity, using sophisticated analysis and mapping to monitor millions of money order transactions across the United States. How do they do this? Using GIS maps, they can monitor where suspicious activities may be occurring and link transactional data to show potential criminal patterns. The reason why they’re doing this is because the Postal Service is an issuer of money orders and a number of federal anti-money-laundering laws and regulations directly affect the Postal Service because of this.

The BSA Compliance Office can identify post offices that may be suspected as being used in criminal activity by tracking if any of the offices have an unusually high number of suspicious money orders over a certain period of time. They can also view money orders that look suspicious or see where unusual money order transactions have occurred. The office can also determine whether a number of money orders have been purchased from numerous locations and have been cashed at a single location which can be used to investigate suspicious activity and apprehend suspects and also to prosecute criminals.

The USPS BSA Compliance Office’s use of this technology is somewhat controversial. It raises issues of privacy, accuracy, as well as power. Issues of finance are a private matter that should be dealt with discretely. By making this transaction information available to the USPS BSA Compliance Office, it is possible for certain individuals to take advantage of this and use this information for their own benefit. In addition, this could also lead to numerous cases of wrongful accusations. This is a serious undertaking for the Compliance Office, yet, how effective will it actually be in fighting crime?

Please… Stop working and start conversing!

Sunday, November 23rd, 2008

(A reply to An environmentally friendly world, made possible with GIS)

You and I work very hard and we often do not take the time to chill out and talk… Conversation is one of the most important social activities but because of time, we forget how important this social act is for us! We are social animals…

Anyway, on a usual Friday diner, my dad, little brother and I opened a nice bottle of wine (I must say that it was a real discovery. For those of you interested Don Pascual reserve Shiraz Tannat 2007 produced in Uruguay available at SAQ). We were discussing about the week main news as we like to do when we get together. We discussed about the US government’s possibility of helping the car industry with $25 billion (owners went to Washington D.C. with private planes), economic crash, Québec election, etc. Later on, when my mother joined us, we opened a second bottle of wine and we did not leave the table at that time.  Haha! We kept discussing and the point that I want to go is the importance of discussing because we can share our opinions but also share news that hit home everyone single one of us (I do not know if his sentence make sense, hope you got it).

I am not telling new thing here but pay attention to this… My dad mentioned that Google continues of getting crazy. After revolutionized the World Wide Wed search engine by adding search options like scholar, images, news, Google Earth, etc, Google can now helps out epidemiologist predicting pandemic. How? Well, I will ask you a question… When people get sick, what do you think they are typing in Google search tool bar? Hahaha! Exactly! I was almost shocked when I heard that from my dad… I just looked online to prove if this is true and was again really surprised to notice that this information is even published in the NATURE website! Wow! Is it surprising or scary? It becomes really powerful and Google possibilities are unlimited as GIS is also. But if I think on that a little bit… in fact, I am not really surprised of this discovery. I am more surprised of the persons that made the link between flu fluctuation and the amount of Google searches over time. See the graph taken from the Nature website.

GIS, Google, … what’s next? This world becomes really crazy! These technologies performed really well but it is our obligation to use them in the right direction.

RFIDs for the home

Monday, March 3rd, 2008

I spend a fair amount of time thinking about the surveillance possibilities for radio frequency identity tags. Now a company has created RFIDs for home use. Never lose your remotes or keys or glasses again! Unless, of course, you lose the remote locator for the RFIDs!

The system has two modes:

Locate – lets you find any tagged item up to a range of 600 feet (180 metres) using directional, audio, visual and vibration technology, guiding you to within 1 inch (2.5cms) of your lost item.

Alert – prevents things from getting lost in the first place: when a tagged item moves out of your pre-set “safety zone”, Loc8tor informs you immediately, what’s missing and directs you to where it’s gone.

The company is marketing the alert mode for businesses as a way to monitor goods that employees may “remove” from a business site. I originally thought that companies might begin marking all sorts of low-priced items like office supplies, which tend to “walk” off the premises at the beginning of the school year. However, at approximately $30CN per tag, only the more valuable items will be tagged.

bike couriers as sensors

Saturday, March 1st, 2008

Bike couriers as human sensors to track air pollution:

Cellphones used by bicycle couriers are monitoring air pollution in Cambridge, UK, and beaming the data back to a research lab.

The technique is made possible by small wireless pollution sensors and custom software that allows the phones to report levels of air pollutants wherever they happen to be around town.

The information can be mapped so that it can be viewed by the general public (and other bike messengers, who are on the front line of this exposure).

What is interesting is the multiplicity of possible applications for these mobile sensors (e.g., the use for noise sensing). I look forward to their discussion of interpolation techniques to maximizes this non-randomized data input.

social movements

Thursday, February 28th, 2008

Following on my the previous post: autorickshaws are not just convenient modes of transport – they are also extremely fertile grounds for research (and ‘research’) and design (of fun afternoons).

I make as many weekend trips from work as possible. The weekend before Dehradun, I was in Jaipur, Rajhastan. My friend and I walked out of the train station early in the morning. Naturally, a swarm of rickshaw-wallahs offered us transportation, some forcefully.

Talking to one driver, we made the condition that we would only go with him if he let us drive. He agreed.

I believe the academic term for this is Action Research

Wearing sunglasses with a video camera embedded between the eyes, we went for a spin. We also asked Don, our driver, to survey his path while wearing the equipment.

As far as mobile phone communications are concerned, there was some of that as well. Once the video is edited, Derek (pictured, right) will have a clip of us exchanging numbers with Don, who became our private transport and part-time guide that weekend. Even Harshad, a friend from New Delhi who lives in Jaipur, was eager to take Don’s phone number. This proved to be a wise move, because Don called saying he had found a wallet on the seat. He delivered it the next day, and we went to do more ‘field work’.

associated press discovers RFID

Tuesday, February 26th, 2008

In sensationalist fashion, the AP covers the growing ubiquity of computer chips, particularly in the form of radio frequency ID tags. How these tags will sniff out the geolocation of individuals and objects and sense their capacities. In one patent,

Once somebody enters a store, a sniffer [sensor] “scans all identifiable RFID tags carried on the person,” and correlates the tag information with sales records to determine the individual’s “exact identity.” A device known as a “person tracking unit” then assigns a tracking number to the shopper “to monitor the movement of the person through the store or other areas.”

But as the patent makes clear, IBM’s invention could work in other public places, “such as shopping malls, airports, train stations, bus stations, elevators, trains, airplanes, restrooms, sports arenas, libraries, theaters, museums, etc.” (RFID could even help “follow a particular crime suspect through public areas.”)

Another patent, obtained in 2003 by NCR Corp., details how camouflaged sensors and cameras would record customers’ wanderings through a store, film their facial expressions at displays, and time — to the second — how long shoppers hold and study items.

Then there’s a 2001 patent application by Procter & Gamble, “Systems and methods for tracking consumers in a store environment.” This one lays out an idea to use heat sensors to track and record “where a consumer is looking, i.e., which way she is facing, whether she is bending over or crouching down to look at a lower shelf.”

Scary stuff since all it does is make us fear for our personal privacy without a sense of proportion or possible recourse. Still the reporter does a good job reporting on the history of RFIDs and their broad applicability.

slaves of our (geospatial) media

Sunday, January 27th, 2008

(An excellent post written by Intro to GIS student, N. E.)

Questions of how one must classify geographic information systems (GIS) have received much attention in the years since GIS’s development. While it is most often a debate between calling GIS a science or a tool, geographers Daniel Z. Sui and Michael F. Goodchild suggest that neither of these options properly convey the relationship between GIS and society. In their essay “A tetradic analysis of GIS and society using McLuhan’s law of the media,” they describe GIS as a means of communication, the new mass media (Sui and Goodchild 2003, 7). Throughout their essay, GIS is presented with skepticism. Sui and Goodchild emphasize the abuse of GIS by companies and governments, drawing on the problem of privacy within GIS. However, they likewise address the fact that the social implications of GIS are neither exclusively positive nor negative.

To focus only on the consequences is to miss the point. Therefore, to explore the relationship between GIS and society, Sui and Goodchild (Ibid., 10-12) evoke 20th Century media analyst, Marshal McLuhan. McLuhan’s law of media is founded on four questions that they apply to GIS:

  1. What does GIS enhance?
  2. What does GIS make obsolete?
  3. What does GIS retrieve?
  4. What does GIS reverse into?

Sui and Goodchild answer these questions. First, they propose that our human faculties are enhanced by GIS. Through the use of remote sensing and aerial photography, our eyes are enhanced. Likewise, our brains are enhanced through the various spatial analysis and modeling applications of GIS. The accessibility of geographic information is enhanced. By extension, the place of GIS in society is enhanced.

These extensions are met by consequences. To the second question, “[GIS] also simultaneously make obsolete … various social practices and human faculties” (Ibid., 10). In the case of GIS, the art of traditional cartography and firsthand data collection are becoming increasingly obsolete as a result of the fast advance of GIS (Ibid., 11). In the face of this loss, GIS retrieves long lost social practices (the third question). For example, with GIS has come a return to a kind of oral culture that faded with the invention of the printing press.

Finally, implicit to GIS is a kind of reversal. Whereas GIS began as a an extension of people, soon people become a sort of extension of GIS (Ibid., 12). Environments are shifted to fit GIS, rather than further developing GIS to fit diverse environments. Furthermore, this role reversal of GIS and its environment create a kind of hierarchy between the individual and the system. The implications of this hierarchy are the loss of personal privacy with the struggle to improve the system and data collection. Thus, “we become slaves to our media” (Ibid.). Through these four areas of analysis Sui and Goodchild express the importance of viewing GIS in a holistic manner.

This notion of GIS as media continues to gain relevance. The increase in online geospatial databases, search engines such as Pipl and Wink, and social networking sites such as Facebook make it increasingly easy to find geospatial information of individuals. With these kinds of technology, tracking down an old friend takes a few minutes. The problem becomes whether it is morally right for these search engines to communicate the information of individuals. Zabasearch, a people search engine, provides both listed and unlisted telephone numbers (Ibid.). In this way, a sense of agency is removed from the individual for the sake of an accurate and convenient system. Sui and Goodchild summarize this idea nicely by stating that: we are “more concerned with what GIS does for us rather than to us” (Sui and Goodchild 2003, 14). It is important to acknowledge both the benefits of GIS and the consequences and attempt to fully recognize the social implications of GIS.

Daniel Z. Sui; Michael F. Goodchild, 2003 “A tetradic analysis of GIS and society using McLuhan’s law of the media” Canadian Geographer 47, 1: 5-17. The article is worth reading in full. It discusses the role of GIS as a mass media in much greater depth and raises interesting connections between McLuhan’s theories and GIS.

Gina Trapani. 2007, “How to track down anyone online” This post gave me insight into the roles of new search engines to disclose geospatial information about individuals without their knowledge or consent.

Nicholas Carr’s “The social graft” Another post I found quite interesting in regards to the functions of GIS and its implications on privacy.

Cellphone tracking powers on request. Who cares?

Sunday, January 6th, 2008

(written by Intro to GIS student, G. M., who takes a view on privacy contrary from many of the GIS students)

Information and communication technologies that have proliferated throughout developed and even underdeveloped societies have transformed our way of life…but, people ask, “At what cost?”. The cell phone is a great example of this proliferation and its potential cost. It has become a convenience few have been able to resist. One after another people have handed over their personal information and in return they received affordable mobile communication thanks to GPS satellites that constantly scan the earth’s surface and cell phone towers that periodically report on people’s locations. Little did they know they had just given up much of their privacy because their cell phone can be located within 30 meters as long as the battery is intact. A cell phone works with the same technology as GPS directional devices such as Onstar that can constantly transmit a location signal weather this is desired or not. Cell phone companies, which have been entrusted with this information, have been known to release it to government agencies, which inform the companies that the information is necessary for security purposes.

Personally I have no problem with my personal information including my approximate location being made available at any time. I feel by owning a cell phone I have given up a certain amount of my privacy but also feel safe as I carry out my regular routine. As one member of the US Justice department states “Law enforcement has absolutely no interest in tracking the locations of law-abiding citizens” (Nakashima 2007). Even when I do become a target, most likely by advertisers, I will accept this as an externality of the technological age. Whether the externality is positive or negative I have yet to decide. I’m still neutral on this as I have yet to experience any form of invasive action, so I continue my existence, comfortable with the knowledge of potential ongoing surveillance.

These geolcation technologies offer benefits that vastly outweigh costs of developing this technology. As satellites are upgraded and added to the system geolocation information will become more accurate, less expensive, and more readily available. I believe that our privacy has been looked after thus far; however, if society continues down this path we must accept further losses to what many consider a basic human right.

Using the GPS for People Tracking

Justice Department Defends Use of Cell-Phone Tracking Data

tracking is ubiquitous

Friday, December 21st, 2007

(written by Intro to GIS student, R. P.)

The Washington Post’s article regarding the tracking power of cell phones would have been a much more interesting read several years ago. The reality is however, that in 2007, an article about tracking powers with mobile phones is nothing new. Don’t get me wrong, the technology that can facilitate the solving of even the most complicated crimes is remarkable. But again, can anyone really be surprised given how incredibly dependent modern society has become on technological devices such as cell phones, Ipods, and high-speed computers with ArcGIS 9.2?

The technology that allows us to do nearly anything we want with a pocket-sized gadget is obviously interesting, but what’s of greater concern here (which the article does touch on) is the issue of privacy! Is it okay to listen in on people’s conversations to help solve a crime? Is it possible to “permit surreptitious conversion of a cell phone into a tracking device” without finding out more information than one ethically should? According to the same article, Dean Boyd, a Justice Department spokesperson insists that

Law enforcement has absolutely no interest in tracking the locations of law-abiding citizens. None whatsoever.

Some may disagree. Check out Google maps (particularly the satellite images or “street-view” options in major cities). I think almost anyone will agree that it’s fascinating how you can zoom in enough to the extent at which you can see your own house on the Internet. But is it okay that everybody in the known universe with a functioning computer can do so as well? In one controversial case, the street-view option of Google Maps allowed users to see a certain location in such detail, that the a resident of the area in question could see her cat “sitting on a perch in the living room window of her second-floor apartment.”

There have certainly been similar cases regarding privacy with satellite images and tracking information. Following September 11th, 2001, it appears that any authority figure will prosecute suspicious people regarding crimes (ranging the entire spectrum of crime severity). In her book, Silencing Political Dissent Nancy Chang confirms this movement towards “rapid disintegration of American civil liberties” as a result of the Bush administration’s War on Terror. In that regard, the technology has been welcomed in the same fashion that forensic science advancements have facilitated crime-solving (or so it appears on CSI Miami).

Another thing to remember is that most criminals are not stupid. As we become smarter in the development of tracking mechanisms, so too do criminals. No matter how good our crime-stopping technology gets, criminals will figure out how to beat the system.

We probably won’t know the consequences of this surveillance technology for a while, but when an Intro to GIS assignment involves choosing a suitable location for a new 5,000-inch flat-screen television in my room at home based on my room’s layout, we’ll know for sure.

GPS: savior or failure of the taxi industry?

Friday, December 21st, 2007

(written by Intro to GIS student, A. O.)

We all know what GPS is. It is not the aim of this post to present the benefits of such a system but rather objectively consider the ramifications the use of GPS will play in the future of various industries. Consider the taxi industry. In recent times just the talk of making such implementation mandatory led to the city wide strike of thousands of cab drivers in New York City (NYC). Because of this – and for the fact that the image of a yellow taxi cab is synonymous with NYC – I will focus on the ongoing debate of GPS in the New York taxi industry.

In NYC there are 13,000 taxis currently in operation. If the GPS program was implemented, all cab owners will have to install a $5,000 system which includes a GPS tracking device, a credit card reader, and a touch-screen TV. The professed goal is increased user satisfaction and overall industry efficiency. (There are other objections are being made about the some of the devices, such as a 5 percent surcharge being removed on all credit card transactions), but I’m not considering these.)

GPS has become a mainstay in private automobiles. The ability to enter/utter a location and have directions returned to you is not only nifty, but also very useful and a great time saver. So why would taxi drivers object to having such a technology present in their cars? Well, the GPS system currently proposed is not the same as those we find in our cars today. It is actually just a tracking device that enables those in high places to see where all cars currently are, where they have been, and how long each fare was. As Bhaivari Desai – the executive director of the Taxi Workers Alliance (TWA) – points out: “[the GPS] is simply being used for tracking…They’re not navigational, cannot be used for dispatching, and serve no purpose to the driver or the public.” Bill Lundauer – also from the TWA – said: “It’s like we’re under surveillance. Not only are we under surveillance we have to pay for the dubious privilege.” So is New York’s Taxi & Limousine Commission (TLC) wrong to press for the installation of GPS in taxis?

Allan Fromberg (TLC) claims that GPS facilitates activities that drivers already and could assist passengers in finding lost items.

“Right now the first thing a taxi driver does is write something on a clip board. That information will now be electronically transferred [to the system],” …”GPS is used to facilitate an electronic trip sheet and to facilitate the return of lost property without the [passenger's knowledge] of a medallion number. Of our 88,000 passengers [that lost something last year] the majority don’t know what cab they were in. With the vehicle location system we’ll be able to triangulate—take a snap shot in time—of several cars in the vicinity of a drop off,” to narrow down which car the passenger was riding in when the item was lost.

It all sounds good but couldn’t this be implemented within a ‘normal’ GPS system – one better aimed at the needs of the drivers? I think the technology exists to make this a worthwhile venture but once again apparent lack of foresight has led taxi officials to miss the mark with their current proposal. If tracking taxi drivers is their main goal then let’s just hope that – as proposed by Bhaivari Desai – this isn’t just a ploy to track the whereabouts of Muslim drivers.

tracking people

Thursday, December 20th, 2007

(Written by Intro to GIS student, S. M.)

The world we live in today is constantly changing. With modernization, an increasing number of technologies are being developed and are being utilized in new ways. The development of technology has increased our ability as humans to understand more about the world in which we live. New geographic information systems (GIS) and geospatial technologies allow users and administrators to have access to enormous amounts of well-organized spatial data. Tracking devices (e.g., GPS) are a type of geospatial technology that have developed recently, and has evolved into something that was unimaginable just a few decades earlier.

Tracking devices stand on a very thin line regarding rights of individuals and consumers. Are these new technological advances are interfering with privacy? There are numerous benefits of such devices. For example, tracking devices implanted in humans can be of great assistance with emergency healthcare. If a patient is found unconscious with no identification information, an implanted device could provide vital information necessary to save their life. Knowledge of a patient’s allergies and health history is incredibly important information, and without this information easily accessible, lives could be put in jeopardy.

Tracking devices have been proven useful in regards to security and theft prevention. About a year ago, $25,000 of stolen oil equipment was recovered thanks to GPS systems. These technologies are useful in many cases and have benefited many users. However, with such great benefits, it’s easy to overlook the potential risks of such technologies. What if this technology ends up in the wrong hands? With every new technology, there’s always a risk involved. The more and more powerful we as human beings become, thanks to our technological advancements, the more vulnerable we are to disaster. Information is powerful, and can be used just as easily to harm people as it can be used for good. I believe that the development of this technology is incredibly useful, but must be monitored closely.

Even if the government has full control over tracking devices, they easily could be used in a negative manner and violate personal privacy rights.

In some cases, judges have granted the requests without requiring the government to demonstrate that there is probable cause to believe that a crime is taking place or that the inquiry will yield evidence of a crime.

Though useful in many cases, such as catching criminals, this technology can very easily cross the line and violate privacy. This technology will likely grow and develop even further with time, and it is therefore necessary to closely monitor its usage to protect the privacy and safety of people.

The United Kingdom Identity Cards Act: A step toward public safety or a Big Brother state?

Sunday, December 16th, 2007

(written by Jones, who’s also in Intro to GIS)

On the 30th of March 2006, the United Kingdom government passed the Identity Cards Act. Under this act, citizens of the UK who renew their passports during or after 2008 will be issued an identification card that is linked to a government database, which is composed of up to fifty attributes for each and every citizen. The government has stated that until 2010 a UK citizen not renewing his or her passport has the option to apply for a card or not, but regardless of one’s decision, one is still placed in the government database, formally called the National Identity Register (NIR).

The NIR is a geocoded database which includes data such as a citizen’s name, current address(es), previous address(es), gender, date of birth, and place of birth. In addition to the usual attributes to identify a person, the Identity Cards Act requires a citizen to provide biometric information. Biometric information includes fingerprints, signatures, iris scans, and shoulder and head photographs. The UK government claims that with all this information it can better serve the public interest through tightening national security, detecting crime, controlling immigration, detecting illegal employment, and securing the effective and efficient provision of public services.

The new act has been met with much resistance within the UK. Many believe that the new system is too costly, may promote racial and ethnic discrimination, and invades the rights and privacy of individuals. Not only is one’s address of residence known, but whenever one must present one’s ID card one’s location can be recorded and added to the NIR as an attribute. One ID card resistance organization, NO2ID, notes that ID cards are basically primary keys in a database, linking a person and all of his or her information to a plethora of other databases. To use a credit card, for example, one might have to provide one’s ID card to prove that indeed the credit card belongs to the right person. As soon as that credit card is used, the store’s location, the store’s name, and the items bought can be linked to the NIR database. Not only can the government determine where you shop and how often you shop there, but it can determine what you buy. One can imagine a number of instances when the ID card would be used to verify identification: when buying a car, when applying for insurance, when leaving or entering the country, when voting, and when borrowing books from a library. Ultimately, since each citizen with an ID card is effectively geo-tagged whenever the card is used, the new cards may facilitate a Big Brother State, where the government not only knows where one goes, but largely what one is doing.

The Identity Cards Act effectively geotags each citizen of the United Kingdom and continually geotags them as they use their ID cards to verify their identification. This information can be added to the already geocoded NIR, enabling government officials to better know where one goes and what one is buying. If this wealth of information actually fulfills the purposes that the government states it will, or if it facilitates the invasion of one’s privacy and personal life, only time will tell; though I’m inclined to predict the latter.

clothes for surveillance

Sunday, December 16th, 2007

(Written by Intro to GIS student, Z.J. It’s interesting that, of all the topics mentioned in the course, the one that elicited the greatest discussion was the surveillance potential for GIS.)


The Associated Press reports on Bladerunner, a clothing company in London, England that has developed a new jacket with a GPS tracker. The device is lodged within the jacket lining and can track the jacket anywhere in the world (with 43 feet resolution). Google Earth can be used to locate the individual. This raises the question: Have geospatial technologies gone too far? It isn’t so much that geographic information systems (GIS) pushes the boundaries in this case, but the product represents our desire to capitalize on any piece of technology as an expensive knee-jerk response to perceived dangers.

The company targets parents who are worried about missing children and, of course, lost jackets. The AP continues that the jacket “alerts” parents when a child skips school or goes places they aren’t supposed to. (I would imagine the child may have the sense to take the jacket off and leave it elsewhere when they don’t want to be tracked.)

The kid’s jacket costs $500; an adult size (presumably for Alzheimer’s patients) costs $700. A $20 tracking fee is charged monthly. I think that, for this price, it may just be more beneficial to save money and purchase a $70 jacket and a cellphone. [For all you parents out there, a cellphone would not necessarily be the cheaper option--Sieber.] The cellphone would allow for an open line of communication, and probably a healthier alternative in terms of trust in parent-child dynamics.

In terms of child safety, this jacket could prove beneficial in terms of kidnapping. However, at such exorbitant prices, you would potentially only be catering to overbearing, spendthrift parents who are likely already overprotective. In my opinion, it is just taking monetary advantage of overprotective parents. For instance, the battery for the tracker only lasts 18 hours and needs to be recharged, rendering it useless over a 24 hour period.

More importantly, is a jacket-tracker the best way to keep our kids safe? The company appears to have chosen an article of clothing that is commonly left in lockers, closets and the back of chairs, rendering it relatively useless in its capacity to ensure child safety. If a parent is so inclined to track his/her child then why not just spend $400 on a tracking device that can be placed in any article of clothing? Wrist GPS detectors are also available, yet I would imagine the alleged kidnapper may notice a cube with 3 inch sides weighing down a child’s arm. The site also says, “Big Brother, meet Big Mother”, which showcases the crossed boundaries encountered with this device. I advocate investing in regular jackets, cellphones, and GIS-free board games to strengthen that parent child bond.