The perils of “transparency”: welcome to tomorrow’s world

In his Address to Congress last April, President Biden issued a call to action to deliver on the promise of democracy.  “Can our democracy overcome the lies, anger, hate and fears that have pulled us apart?  America’s adversaries – the autocrats of the world – are betting it can’t.”

As we consider this global call to action, we should look no further than one of liberal democracies strongest players – the commercial geospatial industry.  With a mix of entrepreneurial spirit, risk capital, and enlightened policy, this sector is ready, willing and able to contribute to the global transparency that advances our common cause by creating coherence from chaos, and separating fact from fiction.  The data generated from satellite imaging technology provides the visibility that helps us partner as allies and combat disinformation.  In other words, geospatial intelligence (GEOINT) can identify and see through the obfuscation.

Commercial imaging companies openly capture images that can be leveraged strategically to shed light on complex geopolitical events.  This light can inform a public narrative that supports our interests and exposes the misinformFor example, in mid-2020, the location of detained Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in Western China became increasingly difficult to find.  The Chinese mapping platform Baidu Maps previewed blank reference map tiles over the areas in question, ultimately masking the reality.  Investigative journalists at Buzzfeed turned to commercial satellite imagery from Planet to uncover thousands of prisons and internment camps in the region, exposing China’s false narrative.

Technology now enables a near-continual sensing of all of the world’s activity.  Such a holistic collection will enable a detailed model of the planet and all that is happening on it.  There are many benefits of such a model including increased agricultural yields, strengthened supply chains, enhanced natural disaster preparedness and response, accurate measurements of the environment, and real-time detection of nefarious actors.  However, such a world will demand a rethinking of privacy itself, requiring us to find the optimum balance between the benefits of this technology, their implications for our privacy, and the potential for misuse.

First, it’s important to know who is doing the collecting and what is done with the collected information.  In the past, the collectors were governments – for good and for bad – and the original driver for remote sensing technologies was national security.  However, with the recent increase in innovation and technological advances from both government and commercial sectors, the potential for transparency escalates exponentially, an attribute I find pertinent to our success as a liberal democracy in this technological age.

With this increase in imagery and data collection, we will be able to cross-connect data streams from human activity to physical reality; ultimately answering the questions, “Where are the people?” “Why are the people there?” and “Where are they going to be tomorrow?”  Clearly, there are good and bad uses of the answers to these questions.

Properly thought through, an era of radical transparency can lead to a healthier planet and a more humane world.  However, achieving such a world means also striking a balance between access and control, openness and privacy, and good and evil.  As the expansion and growth of such surveillance is likely inevitable and incessant, we must calculate a means to deal with such a reality.  If approached with caution and aforethought, this will benefit our society exponentially.

Anticipating the ways this radical transparency might be misused is the most likely solution for establishing regulations that will encourage the good and thwart the bad.  We must first determine who controls our data, who can access it, why it can be accessed, and with what oversight.  We also need to firmly establish what role the derived data would play in our legal framework.  We ultimately need to answer the question, “How might our society adapt, innovate and evolve to harness the power of geospatial data and technology while mitigating its ethical challenges?”

As we seek to address that question, I suggest we all take a heavy dose of humility as these are unchartered waters and precipitous actions could have deleterious effects.  It is essential this situation is addressed with deliberate and well thought out actions, as well as the flexibility and ability to modify rules and regulations as we better understand the ramifications and consequences of our decisions.  I would observe that until we can agree on data privacy norms, it will be hard to create lasting rules around transparency.  The stakes are enormous.  In fact, one could see this discussion and debate as existential, especially as it pertains to human freedoms.

Our transparent society is here to stay, no matter how hard one tries to eliminate their digital presence.  If you think of this transparency as light – as I do – it shines both ways.  I believe transparency is good for liberal, democratic societies.  As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brandeis observed, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.”  I further believe the bedrock of civil discourse is trust; not so we agree on every issue, rather, but so we appreciate the other perspective and empathize with differing views.  I posit that transparency favors justice – and that evil lurks in the dark.

Thus, we should be considering our society’s core strengths – entrepreneurial spirit, risk capital, market competition and respect for the individual and their rights – as we rethink what the notion of privacy should mean today.  If we anticipate many of the ways that the abundance of data might be misused, we can establish rules, regulations, and governing authorities to encourage the best uses while thwarting bad actors.  If approached with thought and caution, this technology has the potential to make transparency a force for good and change the world for the better.

President Biden concluded his April State of the Union speech by acknowledging that our democratic form of government was being tested and challenged as never before — especially by regimes with very different social compacts.  A transparent world reduces confusion and increases shared awareness and trust.  It is in that world that I see democracies innovating, competing and winning.