Is the debate over the ethical use of geospatial data dead?

June 17, 2021

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I was watching the third episode of Penn State’s fascinating series, Geospatial Revolution, this week when I was so struck by a comment that I had to rewind, and rewind again, to jot it down. The speaker was Jeff Jonas of the U.S. Geospatial Intelligence Foundation, who said, “I think that a surveillance society is not only inevitable and irreversible, I have come to this conclusion that it’s irresistible. And it is not governments doing it to us, it’s us doing it to ourselves … The more data that’s available out there the more transparent the world becomes, and the question is, how do people feel about that?”

Hmmmm… How do people feel about that?

Once a hotly debated topic in geospatial intelligence circles, the debate over privacy and other sticky ethics concerns associated with advanced geotracking and location intelligence has all but disappeared from public discourse. A quick online search yields article and forum results from more than a decade ago, with scant recent results.

Are we to believe that the ethical use of geospatial data has been adequately addressed with recent privacy and data management laws, or have we simply given up the debate?

Geospatial industry giants like GISCI and URISA still include a code of ethics on their websites, as does UNICEF. Our own GeoInspirations columnist, Dr. Joseph Kerski, also endorsed an ethical code in his contribution to Spatial Reserves. But when was the last time you actually considered the ethics of your position?

Looking through the GISCI/URISA code of ethics, I’m struck by how difficult part four is in practice today. It reads:

IV.   Obligations to Individuals in Society

The GIS professional recognizes the impact of his or her work on individual people and will strive to avoid harm to them. Therefore, the GIS professional will:

1.   Respect Privacy

  • Protect individual privacy, especially about sensitive information.
  • Be especially careful with new information discovered about an individual through GIS-based manipulations (such as geocoding) or the combination of two or more databases.

2.   Respect Individuals

  • Encourage individual autonomy. For example, allow individuals to withhold consent from being added to a database, correct information about themselves in a database, and remove themselves from a database.
  • Avoid undue intrusions into the lives of individuals.
  • Be truthful when disclosing information about an individual.
  • Treat all individuals equally, without regard to race, gender, or other personal characteristic not related to the task at hand.

How do we apply this to real life situations that we are likely to encounter on the job? And are you prepared to push back on what you believe to be an unethical request?

You haven’t encountered an ethical dilemma on the job? If you haven’t yet, the day will most likely come, as it did for the SeaTac GIS coordinator in 2015 who was asked by the interim city manager to provide household and neighborhood data for the local Sunni and Shiite Muslim population. Among the project goals was to identify the location of “Americans who had not adopted American ways.” The coordinator, uncomfortable with the request, enlisted the support of the city attorney as well as other city staff to push back, and ultimately did not provide the information. Can you think of times when an “unreasonable” request may seem reasonable, or the lines gray and blur? Do you know what you would have done in her shoes?

Penn State has an archive of thought-provoking, true-to-life case studies to get us thinking about our responses and responsibilities, created as part of the GIS Professional Ethics Project. Each study presents a dilemma and requires that you reason your way through to what you perceive to be an ethical response. A seven-step reasoning process taken from “Ethics and the University” is included to help. Read a few studies and ask yourself how you might apply the seven-step process to come up with an adequate response. Ask a colleague how they would respond. You might find yourself in a lively debate.

While there is room for disagreement, we must agree there is no room for complacency. GIS and geospatial technologies have great power to influence society – from determining who gets scarce resources, to who gets bombed in the next geopolitical conflict. With such great power comes great responsibility. Diana Sinton shared some wonderful insights on how we discuss ethics to impact our professional environments in What Makes ‘Do No Harm’ Extra Difficult in the Geospatial World Today? What do others have to say about ethical concerns? A few years ago, DirectionsMag hosted a webinar on the ethics that may offer insights as well.

Prepare yourself by reviewing case studies and engaging in discussion with colleagues and employers. Stay ahead of the latest ethical challenges by regularly stopping by our Ethics topic page, and reviewing the efforts by geospatial technology providers to address privacy and other concerns, as Esri has done with its Geospatial Virtual Data Enclave.

What effort can you make within your own environment, today, to safeguard the ethical use of the geospatial data to which you have access?

Reposted from The DirectionsMag Geospatial Community Blog, an extension of Directions Magazine. Visit us for daily geospatial news, exclusive articles, geospatial webinars, and podcasts. If you are interested in contributing, please email


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