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Jails, schools, a military base and a nuclear power plant — even crime scenes — appeared in the data set The Times reviewed. One person, perhaps a detective, arrived at the site of a late-night homicide in Manhattan, then spent time at a nearby hospital, returning repeatedly to the local police station. Two location firms, Fysical and SafeGraph , mapped people attending the presidential inauguration. SafeGraph did not respond to requests for comment. More than 1, popular apps contain location-sharing code from such companies, according to data from MightySignal , a mobile analysis firm.
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The most prolific company was Reveal Mobile, based in North Carolina, which had location-gathering code in more than apps, including many that provide local news. A Reveal spokesman said that the popularity of its code showed that it helped app developers make ad money and consumers get free services. To evaluate location-sharing practices, The Times tested 20 apps, most of which had been flagged by researchers and industry insiders as potentially sharing the data.
Together, 17 of the apps sent exact latitude and longitude to about 70 businesses. Precise location data from one app, WeatherBug on iOS, was received by 40 companies. The Times also identified more than 25 other companies that have said in marketing materials or interviews that they sell location data or services, including targeted advertising. The spread of this information raises questions about how securely it is handled and whether it is vulnerable to hacking, said Serge Egelman, a computer security and privacy researcher affiliated with the University of California, Berkeley.
Companies that use location data say that people agree to share their information in exchange for customized services, rewards and discounts. Magrin, the teacher, noted that she liked that tracking technology let her record her jogging routes. Brian Wong, chief executive of Kiip, a mobile ad firm that has also sold anonymous data from some of the apps it works with, says users give apps permission to use and share their data. But Ms. Lee, the nurse, had a different view. Lee had given apps on her iPhone access to her location only for certain purposes — helping her find parking spaces, sending her weather alerts — and only if they did not indicate that the information would be used for anything else, she said.
Magrin had allowed about a dozen apps on her Android phone access to her whereabouts for services like traffic notifications. But it is easy to share information without realizing it. Of the 17 apps that The Times saw sending precise location data, just three on iOS and one on Android told users in a prompt during the permission process that the information could be used for advertising.
The Weather Channel app, owned by an IBM subsidiary, told users that sharing their locations would let them get personalized local weather reports.
An IBM spokesman said the pilot had ended. Policies for apps that funnel location information to help investment firms, for instance, have said the data is used for market analysis, or simply shared for business purposes. Kilduff said responsibility for complying with data-gathering regulations fell to the companies that collected it from people. Some companies say they delete the location data after using it to serve ads, some use it for ads and pass it along to data aggregation companies, and others keep the information for years.
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Nevertheless, Cuebiq encrypts its information, logs employee queries and sells aggregated analysis, he said. After many years of false starts, artificial intelligence finally seems ready to help solve this problem. But the monitoring teams found it hard to stare for hours on end at shaky, grainy, night-vision video. Hunters often slipped past them. Once they got the system working well in the lab, they tested it in the field in South Africa. It worked so well that they are now using it in national parks in Botswana and other African countries. Global Fishing Watch has used AI to distinguish fishing vessels from cargo and naval ships.
A research team at Stanford reported in April that it had fed aerial photos of North Carolina farmland into a deep-learning system to find almost industrial livestock farms that manual mapping had missed. Such concentrated feeding operations are a major source of freshwater pollution, in part because 60 percent of them operate without discharge permits, according to the EPA. In principle, regulators could use the AI to survey other states as well and to identify new operations as they pop up. All of these examples, and many others like them, are tremendously encouraging.
They tempt us to envision a happier future in which the instrumentation of nature draws humans into a more synoptic, and yet more intimate, connection to our home planet—one where Gaia itself gains a voice and a Facebook account. These systems could help people routinely band together to watch over ecosystems and organisms they care about deeply, despite never having experienced them directly. But they are companies, so they are selling that data to make a profit.
We should take care not to overestimate the protective power of public awareness nor underestimate how the technology will amplify the power of big industry and bad actors. That is essentially the mistake we made with social media.
In the 20 years since Amos founded SkyTruth, his team has exposed rampant fracking activity, illegal gas-flaring, a decades-long oil spill, illegal fishing around Easter Island, and numerous other kinds of violations. The same can be said of the technology industry. Google and Baidu became behemoths by erecting themselves as the gateways to the Web; Amazon and Alibaba as the gateways to commerce; Facebook as the gateway to friends and family.
How much more valuable would it be to occupy the position of gateway to the planet? Amazon is even building a global network of 24 large antennas to download data directly from some of the satellites that gather it. Planet Labs has been open about its long-term commercial strategy. None of this is necessarily a bad thing. If Google noticed you heading out on a backcountry hike and offered to automatically summon help if you appear to get lost or injured, would you refuse?
There will be countless ways that the tech giants can use the view from everywhere to make our lives slightly safer, cheaper, or more convenient. Most have not yet been conceived. But let us pause to remember that Amazon, Google, and Facebook grew to become the third-, fourth-, and fifth-most valuable companies in the world by pitching ads directly at the people most likely to act on them. Inference equals influence: the product that the tech companies sell to their customers is their ability to infer how we live, where we go, what we do.
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Imagine the value added to that product when it also captures our interactions with the physical world. A rush to exploit remote sensing for advertising may inevitably allow bad actors to target us in more harmful ways. And recall how in Google tracked Android users, even when they had disabled location sharing. The biggest customers for sensing data are governments and resource-extraction industries, and that is unlikely to change, Borowitz says.
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Governments have often demanded exclusive access to the imagery they purchase. It stands to reason that as environmental sensing becomes commercially more valuable or politically more embarrassing, those who pay will want to keep it to themselves. As the costs of drones and satellite images fall and the performance of AI-driven identification rises, whalers, fishers, and poachers may find them to be powerful tools for guiding their hunts.
Commodities traders and financial analysts already hone their forecasts by analyzing Planet and Maxar data to quantify the levels of fuel-storage tanks at refineries, the movement of shipping containers at ports, and the heat emitted by factories. Might land speculators use similar techniques to drive up the prices of wind and solar farms by scooping up the best sites and transmission rights-of-way? If past is prologue, regulators will lag far behind the tech giants and the resource extractors in constraining any destructive practices.
Nor are they inevitable. Several models suggest how to prevent environmental surveillance from going sideways. Space exploration and scientific research offer two useful examples. And the wireless-communications and financial industries provide complementary ideas worth considering.
The earliest satellites, from Sputnik on, were launched in a race to space, and a spirit of free competition has kept space open ever since. So far, 35 countries have lofted Earth-facing satellites. The open-skies policy of space exploration could be extended to guarantee that no big player can exclude its competitors or critics from access to unfiltered observations—or to the computer storage and processing capacity needed to analyze them.
But we should be free to switch prisms and compare different perspectives. Scientific research has long embraced a similar principle—and it has been one of the greatest strengths of that enterprise. To do this, you will use imagery from the USGS Landsat satellites to create georeferenced composite images using the red, green, and blue bands to prioritize the natural look of land and water.
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Landsat imagery is free to use, and is typical of what you often see in other resources. If you are new to working with satellite imagery, or are unfamiliar with bands or the raster data type, read the How satellite imagery works guide before getting started. Landsat image data is cut into scenes , which are roughly square images, for distribution.
You can think of a scene as a single frame from a camera. For a more detailed understanding of Landsat's imaging process, see the Landsat Data Continuity Mission documentation. In this tutorial, you will compare historical and present-day scenes of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates that show the landscape before and after Dubai's period of economic growth in the early s. To make this comparison, the scenes in this tutorial come from two different satellites in the Landsat series.