Technology as Accomplice: The use of GIS in criminal activity

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

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