Big Data and the Space Industry are converging in exciting fashion. Budget satellites and super telescopes are harvesting massive quantise of raw data. So much data in fact, that the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope is predicted to produce more than 100 times that of the entire internet. Simultaneously, the government-controlled public sector is losing its grasp: Over 35% of operational satellites are now controlled by the private sector. The titans of commercial space travel: SpaceX, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin are pioneering the “final frontier” and the future of exploration. With billions of dollars funnelling in, the foreseeable impact is unclear. But let there be no doubt: It’s impact will not be negligible. Thesis: [Despite the ethical concerns about surveillance, the transformative impact of private investment in space technologies and geospatial visualisation will eclipse issues of privacy.]
The convergence of Big Data and the Space Industry is creating a myriad of ethical questions around surveillance. The tenacity of Earth observation will increase as optical communication (laser) facilitates the movement of heavier “packages” of data. Large-scale and unique data sets involving images, video and multi-spectral 3D observations from space is sending the private sector scrambling. Already, companies such as CartoDB are experimenting with more and more sophisticated visualisations. The advent of open source platforms and cloud computing has dramatically improved the feasibility of sophisticated visualisations.
Combined with the increased ubiquity of geospatial data; data storage; and management; visualisation is becoming increasingly useful in areas ranging from agriculture and environmental conservation to real estate and banking. However, with the possibility of Google Earth going LIVE – combined with the immanence of technologies facilitating surveillance from space – very real ethical questions are coming to the fore.
The looming question is whether these advances are necessarily bad. George Orwell and other futurists have projected and popularised a dystopian narrative. In Orwell’s classic, he remarks that “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on human face – forever.” Surveillance takes centre stage in this dystopian narrative – a narrative where an authoritarian government uses ubiquitous surveillance techniques to crackdown on its population. But, of course, if this narrative looks so bad – it’s because its alternative is so good.
Without-doubt, satellite imagery and visualisations are going to transform the scale of surveillance. In fact, with time, there will be nowhere on the surface of the planet that is free form surveillance. This is scary to think about. In a human context, our societies have tremendously valued privacy. So, imagine a world where even the most remote places are no longer free from prying eyes… It’s scary. In this regard, it’s easy to see why dystopian narratives have developed. But, I would argue that so far, surveillance has been proven to incredibly beneficial. It has thwarted numerous terrorist attacks and solved the most puzzling questions in crime. Moreover, companies such as Planet have used it to prove scientific hypothesis about climate change and understand the dynamics of our planet’s environment and ecosystems. In the process, it has advised governments on atrocities such as those committed in Myanmar and on the perilous mountainside of ISIS-held territory. Therefore, I would argue that the benefits in the ubiquity of surveillance will eclipse issues of privacy. In the longterm, ideals of privacy will transform as societies gain new cultural understanding for the meaning of privacy.
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