L1.10: GEOINT and Ethics


Is GEOINT Ethics an Oxymoron?

To some, the notion of GEOINT ethics is an oxymoron—especially in light of the secrecy associated with intelligence work. There is a love-hate relationship with intelligence agencies and what they do. We celebrate the intelligence work of Bletchley Park and fictional characters like James Bond but, as James Olson points out, people are more likely to believe intelligence agencies pervert national values rather than protect them (Olson, 2006) and want nothing to do with the profession. Unfortunately, this sentiment misses an important point. GEOINT is here to stay and, moreover, is exploding in the largely unregulated business community. Given GEOINT's hidden massive increase within the commercial sector, the profession needs a code of ethics more than ever. If for no other reason, a code of ethics is important to GEOINT since it recognizes an obligation of the profession to society that transcends self interest.

Consider that we share our location via our phones, Twitter, and photos that are taken with our cameras. While these geospatial traces are generally benign, there is concern especially with respect to government collection and use of this geospatial trace information. Interestingly, commercial collection, use, and distribution (resale) of these personal geospatial traces likely exceeds that of government. The World Privacy Forum, a research and advocacy organization, estimates that there are about 4,000 data brokers. These companies collect and resell data from sources including consumer health websites, lenders, online surveys, warranty registrations, Internet sweepstakes, loyalty card data from retailers, charities’ donor lists, magazine subscription lists, and information from public records (The New York Times Op-Ed: "The Dark Market for Personal Data"). Some countries are exploring measures to protect against location technology abuses.

Jeremy Crampton (2003), a well recognized academic in the realm of ethics and geography, noted that an "increasingly significant component of security discourse comes from a spatial or geographic standpoint" and the "issue of security is often contrasted against issues of privacy or civil rights." This is because technologies such as the Global Positioning System (GPS), satellite remote sensing, and geographic information systems (GIS) are inherently surveillance technologies. The data they produce may be used to invade the privacy of individuals and groups. Data gathered using geospatial technologies are used to make policy and personal decisions. Erroneous, inadequately documented, or inappropriate data can have grave consequences for individuals and society. Geospatial technologies have the potential to exacerbate inequities in society, insofar as large organizations enjoy greater access to technology, data, and technological expertise than smaller organizations and individuals (Ethics Education for Geospatial Professionals - About). 

In the following video, Donald R. Shemanski of Penn State's College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST) addresses the growing concern with respect to US law.

Paste embed or iframe code here to replace the video below

Cover photo of shemanski.

Code of Ethics

Ethics involves systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong conduct. In our everyday life we follow the moral virtues: be honest, don't steal, harm, etc. But GEOINT often involves activities in gray areas of moral thought. The intelligence professional has long faced the moral dilemmas of balancing the national interests in security against some other societal virtues. An example is the case study Mapping Muslim Neighborhoods. Today, GEOINT has the added moral dilemma of balancing privacy against the convenience of using such features as "Location Services" on your smart phone.

The Society of Competitive Intelligence Professionals (SCIP) has a code of ethics that is among the simplest. The University of Illinois has a collection of ethical codes from many sources at its Institute of Technology Code of Ethics website. The SCIP Code of Ethics is:

  • To continually strive to increase the recognition and respect of the profession.
  • To comply with all applicable laws, domestic and international.
  • To accurately disclose all relevant information, including one's identity and organization, prior to all interviews.
  • To fully respect all requests for confidentiality of information.
  • To avoid conflicts of interest in fulfilling one's duties.
  • To provide honest and realistic recommendations and conclusions in the execution of one's duties.
  • To promote this code of ethics within one's company, with third-party contractors, and within the entire profession.
  • To faithfully adhere to and abide by one's company policies, objectives and guidelines.

Many governments have special laws for their spies that grant them immunity from laws that apply to ordinary citizens. Some of those special laws can be found in the public domain, but many are secret.

Guide to Making Ethical Decisions

Michael Davis (Davis, Michael (1999) Ethics and the University, New York: Routledge, p. 166-167) proposes a seven-step guide to help think through some complex ethical case studies. A key feature of Davis' approach is his emphasis on identifying multiple (more than two) options for responding to ethical challenges. Another is the series of tests presented in Step 5.

Seven-step guide to ethical decision-making (Davis 1999)

  1. State problem.
    • For example, "there's something about this decision that makes me uncomfortable" or "do I have a conflict of interest?"
  2. Check facts.
    • Many problems disappear upon closer examination of the situation, while others change radically.
  3. Identify relevant factors.
    • For example, persons involved, laws, professional code, other practical constraints (e.g. under $200).
  4. Develop list of options.
    • Be imaginative, try to avoid "dilemma;" not "yes" or" no" but whom to go to, what to say.
  5. Test options. Use such tests as the following:
    • harm test: Does this option do less harm than alternatives?
    • publicity test: Would I want my choice of this option published in the newspaper?
    • defensibility test: Could I defend choice of option before a congressional committee or a committee of peers?
    • reversibility test: Would I still think choice of this option good if I were adversely affected by it?
    • colleague test: What do my colleagues say when I describe my problem and suggest this option is my solution?
    • professional test: What might my profession's governing body for ethics committee say about this option?
    • organization test: What does the company's ethics officer or legal counsel say about this?
  6. Make a choice based on steps 1-5.
  7. Review steps 1-6. What could you do to make it less likely that you would have to make such a decision again?
    • Are there any cautions you can take as an individual (and announce your policy on question, job change, etc.)?
    • Is there any way to have more support next time?
    • Is there any way to change the organization (for example, suggest policy change at next departmental meeting)?

In his book Profession, Code, and Ethics (2002) Davis makes the point that people who claim to be members of a profession have special ethical obligations beyond what the law and ordinary morality require. Those special obligations are stated in the codes of ethics that many professions, firms, and government agencies publish. The intelligence professional is expected to have an understanding of, and experience in thinking about, moral and ethical problems. It may well be that the most significant aspect of the preparation of the intelligence professional is the informed judgment that enables them to make discriminating moral choices.