Is Big Brother locating you?

Spying with Maps
April 18, 2003

The theme of this book is the growth of surveillance technologies and the threat to privacy. A recurrent reference is the Orwellian nightmare, in which the valiant Winston Smith attempts to maintain his integrity and privacy in spite of the all-pervasive and intrusive power of Big Brother and the state's power to monitor and to control. With his background in geography, and especially in cartography, Mark Monmonier focuses on surveillance data that can be mapped, and is particularly concerned with remote sensing, geographical information systems (GIS) and the global positioning system (GPS).

There is undoubtedly a great deal of serious scholarship supporting this book, but it is regrettable that the only referencing is by end notes, with just a page number to indicate to which text they refer. It is not always easy to identify which statements are supported by references and which are speculation. The range of sources is eclectic: a mere one page of endnotes contains references to New York Newsday (Queens edition), Federal Computer Week, Wireless Review, The Futurist, Family Handyman, Byte, Railway Age, Houston Chronicle and Smart Computing.

If the aim is to make the reader aware of the dangers of the coming "Orwellian nightmare", it fails to provide solid evidence. If it is intended to provide a primer on how information is gathered, there are better books available. It provides snippets of information, many of which could be used by those who claim to be anxious about the threat to privacy.

The author claims not to be a Luddite, but frequently refers to the possible abuse of technology. As an example of the dangers of surveillance he cites a system called Digital Angel that uses an implanted microscopic chip to send out a signal giving a GPS-derived location.

Possible uses range from the finding of a lost child to the monitoring of convicts on parole. One of his illustrations of the benefits of surveillance is his report on the problem of deaths caused by bullets returning to earth after gun-happy citizens have fired into the air to celebrate. Shotspotter is a surveillance system that can locate the sound of a gun being fired to within 15 yards. The issue of privacy and crime is discussed in the context of the use of heat sensors to detect grow lights used in indoor cannabis production. The court cases are reported, but we do not know if the author thinks that such technologically sophisticated crime-fighting surveillance is a threat to privacy or not.

It weakens the argument that much of the book is concerned with technologies that have little relevance to privacy (such as the Landsat programme and its value in agricultural management) or which may have a great deal to do with control by technology, but little to do with mapping or privacy, such as an extraordinarily detailed section on the technology of traffic lights and how (together with three-lane one-way streets) they can be managed to speed the flow of traffic through urban areas.

Another weakness is the subjective nature of much of the comment, typified by: "Although England adopted street cameras enthusiastically as a defence against terrorism and rising crime, video surveillance seems a bit out of place on American street corners, largely (I suspect) because local governments are not convinced it's all that useful."

While some of the writing is very sound and informative, some is not. The reference to satellite imagery as "high-resolution snapshots from space" gives a flavour of the level of much of the technical description. Often the style and content are reminiscent of Reader's Digest: "If you are a small state surrounded by hostile neighbours 1-metre satellite imagery does not afford much privacy. Iraq and Syria would pay millions to learn where to invade or bomb, or how best to repel an Israeli attack."

Finally, the level at which the information is presented and the relevance to the main theme of the book is questionable. There is very little about spying with maps and the future of privacy in the following: "GIS also helps health officials investigate eruptions of contagious diseases. For example, maps of patients' quarters focused attention on a specific housing area and small wading pools set up outside for children, some of whom might have contaminated the water with fecal matter... Banning the pools abruptly halted the epidemic." If medical epidemiology is an appropriate topic for a book on spying with maps and the future of privacy, then one would expect comment on the important work by Stan Openshaw and Anthony Gatrell, to name but a few authors - yet there is none.

The major section that is relevant to the theme of privacy lies in the discussion of the possibility of providing easy access to integrated personal data banks, and particularly to the use of data derived from loyalty cards and from census data - but this topic has been extensively covered elsewhere.

David Walker is honorary research fellow in geography, University of Loughborough.

Spying with Maps: Surveillance Technologies and the Future of Privacy

Author - Mark Monmonier
ISBN - 0 226 534 8
Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Price - £17.50
Pages - 239

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