Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, are an increasingly prevalent part of the technology of modern warfare, law enforcement, aerial photography and photogrammetric survey, and increasingly popular amongst the hobbyist flight fraternity. Joshua Kopstein recently reported on the release of the ARGUS-IS drone equipped with 1.8 gigapixel camera that can observe and record ‘…an area half the size of Manhattan‘, and is capable of detecting and tracking objects as small as six inches from an altitude of 20,000 ft. Although this real-time surveillance technology has obvious appeal for police, public safety and emergency response agencies, and is changing the way much geospatial information will be captured, it also raises many questions about legitimate observation versus a right to privacy. Many civil liberties groups have expressed concerns about inappropriate government surveillance, aerial stalking, drone harassment and the potential for misuse of the information they collect. The Information Commissioner’s Office in the UK recently noted in a draft report on surveillance “In the context of war, consent, privacy, and data protection may be little considered, but in the context of the mundane policing of citizens, such considerations should not be so easily abandoned.” (Surveillance Road Map – A shared Approach to the Regulation of Surveillance in the United Kingdom).
The UK’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) policy for the operation of UAVs includes:
- All UAVs must operate below 400 feet
- UAVs must remain within 500 m of the operator at all times
- UAVs cannot fly over/within 150 m of congested area of a city, town or settlement
- UAVs must remain at least 50 m clear of any person, vessels, vehicle or structures
- UAVs must have a fail-safe mechanism to terminate the flight following the loss of signal or detection of an interfering signal
So, could I buy a UAV, attach a camera to it and fly it over my neighbour’s garden to see why he’s been clearing such a large patch of ground next to our shared boundary? It’s not in a congested area, the area of interest is more than 50 m away from people, vessels, vehicles and structures, it would be flying below 400 m and the device would never be more than 500 m away from me. Does my concern about any potential development outweigh my neighbour’s right to privacy? In the USA, this type of UAV use will soon be prohibited as a number of states – Texas, Oregon, California and Florida to name a few – seek to introduce legislation making it a criminal offence to take photos from unmanned aircraft without the permission of the property owner. As is often the case, legal safeguards have lagged behind the adoption of new technology but the lawmakers are now catching up. The window of opportunity to “observe” what’s going on next door will soon be closed. Looks like I’m going to have to ask my neighbour myself.
In a recent op-ed for the New York Times, Bill Keller lays out an interesting real scenario where a local editor legally obtains location information and proposes to publish it in the newspaper. One of the points Bill raises is that just because we can increasingly map location information, it may be controversial to do so. For example, when a newspaper mapped the names and addresses for 33,000 gun owners in two counties, thousands of protests came from gun owners and non-gun owners alike. We may protest this type of mapping but we are also acquiescing to sweeping erosion of our privacy in many areas of life, prompting Bill to say, “when it comes to privacy, we are all hypocrites.”
What are the implications for the GIS community? In our book, The GIS Guide to Public Domain Data and on the Spatial Reserves Blog, we dive into issues of privacy. I first became aware of the dichotomy between personal information wariness and wanting to map that information while working for the US Census Bureau. People may not relish divulging their own information for the census but appreciate government grants to their communities stemming from census figures. How did you feel back in the 1990s when grocery chains began offering plastic cards as a way to offer discounts? You knew they would track your purchases, and they did! But then consider the detailed data that you can obtain and map from consumer expenditure surveys based on that data.
I think that what makes people nervous is not so much the publishing or mapping of data in aggregated form, but the fact that individual records are stored online and potentially accessible by many. And nearly on a daily basis, we read about those records being hacked or somehow compromised. What is the solution? Certainly the continued improvement of cyber security. However, beyond the technology, it is my hope that through our work in education, that we can cultivate a generation that is ethical about data and will seek to protect and secure that data.
Last month the National Land Survey of Iceland announced it was making digital maps and spatial data available for free to ensure the general public in Iceland would always have access to authoritative environmental and natural resources information. The data are currently used in a number of public projects, including planning, conservation, energy and natural hazard initiatives. Although the data will still be subject to copyright, it’s hoped that making it available at no cost will support the increased use of the data across private and public sectors, the tourism industry and within education.
Following the lead of neighbouring European countries such as Denmark, the government in Iceland decided making the spatial data available for free was an inevitable part of the progression towards a ‘… more open and transparent society‘ and the data should be considered a public asset, not a marketable product.
A theme running throughout our book The GIS Guide to Public Domain Data is to be critical of the data that you are using–even data that you are creating. Thanks to mobile technologies, anyone can create spatial data, even from a smartphone, and upload it into the GIS cloud for anyone to use. This has led to incredibly useful collaborations such as Open Street Map, but this ease of data creation means that caution must be employed more than ever before.
For example, analyze a map that I created ) using Motion X GPS on an iPhone and mapped using ArcGIS Online. It is shown below, or you can interact with the original map if you prefer. To do so, access www.arcgis.com/home (ArcGIS Online) and search for the map entitled “Kendrick Reservoir Motion X GPS Track” or go directly to http://bit.ly/Rx2qVp. Open the map. This map shows a track that I collected around Kendrick Reservoir in Colorado USA. This map was symbolized on the time of GPS collection, from yellow to gradually darker blue dots as time passed.
Note the components of the track to the northwest of the reservoir. These pieces were generated when the smartphone was just turned on and the track first began, indicated by their yellow color. They are erroneous segments and track points. Notice how the track cuts across the terrain and does not follow city streets or sidewalks. Change the base map to a satellite image. Cutting across lots would not have been possible on foot given the fences and houses obstructing the path. When I first turned on the smartphone, not many GPS satellites were in view of the phone. As I kept walking and remained outside, the phone recorded a greater number of GPS satellites, and as the number of satellites increased, the triangulation was enhanced, and the positional accuracy improved until the track points mapped closely represented my true position on the Earth’s surface.
Use the distance tool in ArcGIS Online to answer the following question: How far were the farthest erroneous pieces from the lake? Although it depends on where you measure from, some of the farthest erroneous pieces were 600 meters from the lake. Click on each dot to access the date and time each track point was collected. How long did the erroneous components last? Again, it depends on which points you select, but the erroneous components lasted about 10 minutes. At what time did the erroneous track begin correctly following my walk around the lake? This occurred at 11:12 a.m. on the day of the walk.
This simple example points to the serious concern about the consequences of using data without being critical of its source, spatial accuracy, precision, lineage, date, collection scale, methods of collection, and other considerations. Be critical of the data, even when it is your own!