Category Archives: GEOINT

Papers from “Where’s the Value? Emerging Digital Economies of Geolocation” session

The written texts from the AAG panel session I co-organized with Agnieszka Lesczczynski entitled “Where’s the Value? Emerging Digital Economies of Geolocation” are now available. The panelists were Elvin Wyly (UBC), Rob Kitchin (National University of Ireland at Maynooth), Agnieszka Leszczynksi (University of Birmingham) and Julie Cupples (University of Edinburgh).

Two were posted to blogs (linked below) and two are reproduced below. Although I posted links to a couple of these previously, this blog entry collects them all. (Two panelists, Sam Kinsley and David Murakami Wood, were regrettably unable to attend.)

Thanks again to all!

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Elvin Wyly: “Capitalizing the Records of Life” (see below)

Rob Kitchin “Towards geographies of and produced by data brokers

Agnieszka Leszczynski “What makes location valuable? Geolocation as evidence, meaning, & identity” (see below)

Julie Cupples “Coloniality, masculinity and big data economies

And here again is the audio from the session.

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“Capitalizing the Records of Life”
Elvin Wyly, UBC

Let me begin with a confession.  I did some homework reading the cv’s of my colleagues on this panel, and this is where I found the answer to our central question, “Where’s the value in the emerging digital economies of geolocation?”  I.  Am.  In.  Awe.  It’s here, right here, right now, in the intersecting life-paths of extraordinary human geographers coming together to share the results of labor, creativity, critical insight and commitment.  Julie Cupples’ work on decolonizing education and geographies of media convergence intersects with Agnieszka Lesczynski’s inquiry into the gendered dimensions of the erosion of locational privacy and the “new digital spatial mediations of everyday life,” and Sam Kinsley’s ‘Contagion’ project on the movement of ideas through technologically mediated assemblages of people, devices, and algorithms.  David Murakami Wood’s Smart Cities project and editorial assemblage in the journal Surveillance and Society respond directly to the challenges and opportunities in Rob Kitchin’s (2014) call in The Data Revolution for “a more critical and philosophical framing” of the ontology, epistemology, ideology, and methodology” of the “assemblage surrounding” the production and deployment of geolocational data.  And many of these connections have been the subject of wise anticipatory reflections on Jeremy Crampton’s Open Geography, where the adjective and the verb of ‘open’ in the New Mappings Collaborative give us a dynamic critical cartography of the overwhelming political and knowledge economies of spatialized information.

As I read the cv’s of my panelists, it became obvious that the value of a record of a life — that’s the Latin curriculum vitae — is the new frontier of what James Blaut (1993) once called The Colonizer’s Model of the World, and what Kinsley (2014) has diagnosed as “the industrial retention of collective life.”  Smart cities, the social graph, the Internet of Things, the Quantified Self, the Zettabyte (270 bytes) Age analyzed by Kitchin:  all of this signifies a new quantitative revolution defined by the paradox of life in the age of post-humanist human geography.  In the closing lines of Explanation in Geography, David Harvey announced “by our models they shall know us” — a new generation of human geographers bearing the models and data of modern science; today, it’s the algorithms, models, and corporations that arrive bearing humans — millions and billions of them — whose curricula vitae can be measured, mapped, and monetized at scales that are simulteneously perrsonalized and planetary.  Facebook alone curates more than 64 thousand years of human social relations every day (four-fifths of it on mobile devices and four-fifths of it outside the U.S. and Canada) and LinkedIn CEO Jeffrey Weiner (quoted in MarketWatch, 2015) recently declared, “We want to digitally map the global economy, identifying the connections between people, companies, jobs, skills, higher educational organizations and professional knowledge and allow all forms of capital, intellectual captial, financial capital, and human capital to flow to where [they] can best be leveraged.”

Capitalized curricula vitae, however, are automating and accelerating what Anne Buttimer once called the ‘dance macabre’ of the knowledge economies of spatialized information, because the deceptively friendly concept of ‘human capital’ is in fact a deadly contradiction:  capital is dead labor, the accumulated financial and technological appropriation of surplus value created through human labor, human creativity, and human thought.  Buttimer’s remark about geospatial information being “a chilly recording by a detached observer, a hollow rattle of bones” hurt — because this is what she said in a conversation to the legendary time-geographer Torsten Hägerstrand, who in the 1940s spent years with his wife Britt in the church-register archives of a rural Swedish parish to understand “a human population in its time and space context.  Here’s what Hägerstrand (2006, p. xi) recalls:

 “[We] worked out the individual biographies of all the many thousands of individuals who had lived in the area over the last hundred years.  We followed them all from year to year, from home to home, and from position to position.  As the data accumulated, we watched the drama of life unfold before our eyes with graphic clarity.  It was something of stark poetry to see the people who lived around us, many of whom we knew, as the tips of stems, endlessly twisting themselves down in the realm of times past.”

Hägerstrand wrote that he was disturbed and alarmed by Buttimer’s words, and I am too, because Allan Pred (2005, p. 328) began his obituary for Hägerstrand by quoting Walter Benjamin, emphasizing that it is not only knowledge or wisdom, but above all real life — “the stuff stories are made of” — which “first assumes transmissible form at the moment of …death.”  But just as “every text has a life history” (Pred, 2005, p. 331) that comes to an end, now Allan Pred’s curriculum vitae has also assumed transmissible form of the market-driven, distorted sort you can track through the evolving Hägerstrandian time-space prisms of the digitized network society.  Hägerstrand is dead, but he has a Google Scholar profile that’s constantly updated by the search robots, and the valorized geolocatable knowledge of his citations put him in a dance macabre of apocalyptic quantification:  he is “worth” only 1.093 percent of the valorization of another dead curriculum vitae, that of Foucault, who’s also on Google Scholar.  The world is falling in love with geography, but we don’t need more than just a few human geographers to do geography, thanks to the self-replicating algorithms and bots of the corporate cloud of cognitive capital.

The geolocatable knowledge economy is thus a bundle of contradictions and the endgame of the organic composition of human capital.  Human researchers spending years in the archives to build databases are now put into competition with the fractal second derivatives of code:  how do I balance my respect and reverence for our new generation of geographers screen-scraping APIs and coding in R, D3, Python, and Ruby on Rails without giving up what we have learned from the slow, patient, embodied labor of previous generations working by hand?  I see the tips of stems, not just in Hägerstrand’s small Swedish parish, but right here, in this room.  Tips of stems, endlessly twisting down in the realm of times past — but in today’s times where each flower now faces unprecedented competition in every domain:  jobs, research support, academic freedom, human care, human recognition, human attention.  Tips of stems, endlessly twisting through time-spaces of a present suffused with astronomical volumes of geographical data in what the historian George Dyson (2012) calls the “universe of self-replicating code.”  Tips of stems, tracing out an entirely new ontology of socio-spatial sampling theory defined by the automated mashup analytics that now combine Hägerstrand’s time-space diagrams with Heisenberg’s observational uncertainties, Alan Turing’s (1950) ‘universal machine,’ and Foucault’s archaeology of knowledge blended with Marx’s conception of the “general intellect” and Auguste Comte’s notion of the ‘Great Being’ of all the accumulated knowledge of intergenerational human knowledge, tradition, and custom.  Tips of stems, tracing lifeworlds of a situationist social physics that treats smartphones as “brain extenders” (Kurzweil, 2014) converging into a planetary “hive mind” (Shirky, 2008) while reconfiguring the observational infrastructures and human labor relations of an empiricist hijacking of positivism:  if Chris Anderson (2008) is correct that the petabyte age of data renders the scientific method obsolete, then who needs theory?

We all need theory — we humans.  Theory is the intergenerational inheritance of human inquiry, human thought, and human struggle.  Let me be clear:  I mean no disrespect to the extraordinary achievements of the new generation of data revolutionaries represented by my distinguished panelists, and all of you who can code circles around my pathetic do-loop rusty routines in FORTRAN, Cobol, and SAS.  Tips of stems, twisting themselves down into the realms of human history:  take a look around, at one of the last generations of human geospatial analysts, before we’re all replaced by algorithmic aggregation.  Yesterday’s revolution was humans doing quantification.  Today’s revolution is quantification doing humans.


Anderson, Chris (2008).  “The End of Theory:  The Data Deluge Makes the Scientific Method Obsolete.”  Wired, June 23.

Blaut, James (1993).  The Colonizer’s Model of the World.  New York:  Guilford Press.

Dyson, George (2012).  “A Universe of Self-Replicating Code.”  Edge, March 26, at

Hägerstrand, Torsten (2006).  “Foreword.”  In Anne Buttimer and Tom Mels, By Northern Lights:  On the Making of Geography in Sweden.  Aldershot:  Ashgate, xi-xiv.

Kitchin, Rob (2014).  The Data Revolution:  Big Data, Open Data, Data Infrastructures and Their Consequences.  London:  Sage Publications.

Kinsley, Sam (2014).  “Memory Programmes:  The Industrial Retention of Collective Life.”  Cultural Geographies, October.

Kurzweil, Ray (2014).  Comments at ‘Will Innovation Save Us?’ with Richard Florida and Ray Kurzweil.  Vancouver:  Simon Fraser University Public Square, October.

MarketWatch (2015).  “LinkedIn Wants to Map the Global Economy.”  MarketWatch, April 9.

Pred, Allan (2005).  “Hägerstrand Matters:  Life(-path) and Death Matters — Some Touching Remarks.”  Progress in Human Geography 29(3), 328-332.

Shirky, Clay (2008).  Here Comes Everybody:  The Power of Organizing Without Organizations.  New York:  Penguin.

Turing, Alan M. (1950).  “Computing Machinery and Intelligence.”  Mind 59(236), 433-460.


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“What makes location valuable? Geolocation as evidence, meaning, & identity”
Agnieszka Lesczcynski, University of Birmingham

I want to invert the question that Jeremy and myself posed to the panel when organizing this session by asking, rather than ‘where is the value’ in geolocation, what is it that makes geolocation valuable? In contending that there are particular kinds of economies emerging around location, it is because geolocation itself is somehow intrinsically valuable, and I’d like to make some preliminary propositions to this end.

Over the last few years I have been particularly interested in the ways in which emergent surveillance practices of the securities agencies, made broadly known to us through the as yet still-unfolding Snowden revelations, are crystallizing around big data – its collection, mining, interception, aggregation, and analytics. And specifically, I’m particularly interested in the ways in which locational data is figuring as central within these emergent regimes of dataveillance. Indeed at the close of 2013, Barton Gellman and Ashkan Soltani, reporting in the Washington Post, identified at least ten American signals intelligence programmes or SIGADs that explicitly sweep up locational data – i.e., where location data is the target or object of data capture, interception, and aggregation.

  • Under a SIGAD designated HAPPYFOOT, the NSA taps directly into mobile app data traffic that streams smartphone locations to location-based advertising networks organized around the delivery of proximately relevant mobile ads, often unencrypted and in the clear. This locational data, which is often determined through mobile device GPS capabilities, is far higher-resolution than network location, allowing the NSA “to map Internet addresses to physical locations more precisely than is possible with traditional Internet geolocation services”
  • Documents dating from 2010 reveal that the NSA and GCHQ exploit weaknesses in ‘leaky’ mobile social and gaming applications that veil secondary data mining operations behind primary interfaces, piggybacking off of commercial data collection by syphoning up personal information including location under a signals intelligence program code-named ‘TRACKER SMURF’ after the children’s animated classic
  • In perhaps the most widely publicized example, the NSA collects over 5 billion cell phone location registers off of cell towers worldwide, bulk processing this location data through an analytics suite code-named CO-TRAVELLER which looks to identify new targets for surveillance on the basis of parallel movement with existing targets of surveillance – i.e., individuals whose cell phones ping off of the same cell towers in the same succession at the same time as individuals already under surveillance.
  • Just a few months ago, it was leaked that the CSE, or Canada’s version of the NSA, was tracking domestic as well as foreign travelers via Wi-Fi at major Canadian airports for up to two weeks as they transited through the airports and subsequently through other ‘nodes’ including other domestic and international airports, urban Wi-Fi hotspots, transport hubs, major hotels and conference centers, and even public libraries both within Canada and beyond in a pilot project for the NSA;
  • and, most recently, under a SIGAD code-named LEVITATION, the CSE has been demonstrated to be intercepting data cable traffic to monitor up to 15 million file downloads a day. Particularly significant in the leaked CSE document detailing this programme is that the CSE explicitly states that it is looking to location data to improve LEVITATION capabilities for intercepting both GPS waypoints and “[d]evices close to places” so as to further isolate and develop surveillance targets, including those carrying and using devices within proximity of designated locations.

So the question is, why geolocation? Why is it of such great interest to the securities agencies? And here I want to argue that it is of interest because it is inherently valuable, and uniquely so amongst other forms of PII. And this value is latent in the spatio-temporal and spatial-relational nature of geolocation data.

  • the spatio-temporal nature of many spatial big data productions means that it may be enrolled as definitive evidence of our complicity or involvement in particular kinds of socially disruptive events or emergencies by virtue of our presence, or as in the case of CO-TRAVELER, co-presence and co-movement, in particular spaces at particular times
  • furthermore, longitudinal retention of highly precise, time-stamped geoloational data traces allow for the reconstruction of detailed individual spatial histories, which like the CO-TRAVELER example, similarly participate within what Kate Crawford has recently characterized as emergent truth economies of big data in which data is truth;
  • the relational nature of spatial big data productions, in which our data may be used to discern our religious, ethnic, political and other kinds of personal affiliations and identifies on the basis of the kinds of places that we visit and the ability to establish linkages with other PII across data flows;
  • and, in this vein, the ways in which locations are inherently meaningful – for example, they may be as revealing of highly sensitive information about ourselves as our DNA. For instance, on the basis of the specialty of a medical office that we visit, this information may be revelatory of the fact that we may have a degenerative genetic disease and the nature of that disease – information that socially we otherwise understand as some of the most private information about ourselves.
  • and, of course, the ways in which location is not only revealing of identity positions, but it is identity – for example, a group of researchers determined that unique individuals could be identified form the spatial metadata of only four cell phone calls at a very high confidence level.

So in asking where is the value in geolocation, my take is that it is valuable – to both the intelligence apparatuses that I have highlighted here but also corporate entities – because it is uniquely sensitive – revealing and identifying – amongst other forms of PII.

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TASC to build app store for spy agency

Tim Shorrock (author of Spies for Hire) with news of a new geospatial intelligence contract for the NGA, worth $25m:

NGA has plan for total “Map of the World”

John Goolgasian, NGA

According to the NGA, one of the most popular sessions at the recent GEOINT 2013* (held over from 2013) conference was one which offered a total “Map of the World:”

But what is it?

Map of the World is the foundation for intelligence integration, said NGA Director Letitia A. Long in her keynote address at the four-day event.

The clue lies in this statement:

Twelve different data views will make up Map of the World and nine of them are online now, including maritime and aeronautical.

This, along with Goolgasian’s involvement, indicates that it is probably related to, or draws from, the work of the World-Wide Human Geography Database Working Group (WWHGD). I’ve written about Goolgasian on this blog before.

The WWHGD is a government-private contractor (Booz Allen Hamilton are the provided contact points and presumably run it) group that is seeking to:

The WWHGD Working Group is designed to build voluntary partnerships around human geography data and mapping focused on the general principle of making appropriate information available at the appropriate scales to promote human security. This involves a voluntary “whole-of-governments” national and international approach to create a human geography data framework that can leverage ongoing efforts around the world to identify, capture, build, share, and disseminate the best available structured and unstructured foundation data.

Here are the data they’re looking at in these layers:

The inclusion of things like land ownership maps directly on to the arguments of Geoffrey Demerest, who was a key player in the Bowman Expeditions. You can judge for yourselves about the set of information here. Personally I think it’s way too rigid and a-historical (what about a history of foreign intervention in an area, or standards of living and well-being?).

But even beyond that it reflects a belief in the efficacy of totalizing indexes. We heard something about this at the AAG, and Brad Evans and Julian Reid have a discussion about it in their new book Resilient Life.

The article continues:

“Through a single point on the Earth, the Map of the World will present an integrated view of collection assets from across the community, mapping information for military operations, GEOINT observations, and NGA analytic products, data and models,” said Goolgasian.

Worth keeping an eye on.

Contractor receives $400K federal funds for automatic license plate reading

According to reporting by Bloomsberg News the IRS, the Forest Service and the U.S. Air Force’s Air Combat Command have awarded a contractor over $400,000 in contracts for its automated licence plate recognition (ALPR) system since 2009.

It’s not clear if the contracts to Vigilant Solutions are ongoing, given the context that Homeland Security dropped similar plans in February of this year following widespread opposition form civil liberties groups.

“Especially with the IRS, I don’t know why these agencies are getting access to this kind of information,” said Jennifer Lynch, a senior staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based privacy-rights group. “These systems treat every single person in an area as if they’re under investigation for a crime — that is not the way our criminal justice system was set up or the way things work in a democratic society.”

Other countries (including the UK) have long had such systems in place.

If you go to the Vigilant website they have a long complaining blog post about the lies and distortions by civil liberties groups:

License plate readers are under siege nationwide, thanks to a well-funded, well-coordinated campaign launched by civil liberties groups seeking to take advantage of the growing national debate over surveillance. 

Unfortunately, the campaign led by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has deliberately clouded and even omitted those facts.

According to this article, Vigilant actually successfully used the First Amendment to overturn an anti license-plate recognition law in Utah:

Vigilant Solutions and DRN [Digital Recognition Network] sued the state of Utah on constitutional grounds, arguing that the law infringed on the First Amendment right to take photographs of public images in public places, a right that everyone in Utah shares.

The law was overturned, but Vigilant com,plains that state agencies were then barred from using any of the data collected, impacting their profits. They also complain about data retention limits.

What’s also interesting about companies such as this is that they illustrate the argument for understanding policing and military together (see this blog post by Derek Gregory for example).

DNI Clapper: press coverage “inaccurate”

DNI Clapper labeled press coverage of the Snowden affair as “inaccurate, misleading and incomplete” at the GEOINT 2013* meeting today:

He also repeated his position that Snowden is not a whistleblower:

Our new paper on intelligence now online


Very excited to announce our paper “The New Political Economy of Geographical Intelligence” is now online at the publisher’s website for the Annals of the Association of American Geographers.

The publishers have provided a link for free access to the first 50 people (click here for free access)! (Edit: these have unfortunately all been claimed)

The regular link which will remain after those free accesses are used up is this one


A troubling new political economy of geographical intelligence has emerged in the United States over the last two decades. The contours of this new political economy are difficult to identify due to official policies keeping much relevant information secret. The U.S. intelligence community increasingly relies on private corporations, working as contractors, to undertake intelligence work, including geographical intelligence (formally known as GEOINT). In this article we first describe the geography intelligence “contracting nexus” consisting of tens of thousands of companies (including those in the geographical information systems and mapping sector), universities and nonprofits receiving Department of Defense and intelligence agency funding. Second, we discuss the “knowledge nexus” to conceptualize how geographical knowledge figures in current U.S. intelligence efforts, themselves part of the U.S. war on terror and counterinsurgency (COIN). To analyze the contracting nexus we compiled and examined extensive data on military and intelligence contracts, especially those contracts awarded by the country’s premier geographical intelligence agency, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), for satellite data. To analyze the knowledge nexus we examined recent changes in the type of geographical knowledges enrolled in and produced by the U.S. intelligence community. We note a shift from an emphasis on
areal and cultural expertise to a focus on calculative predictive spatial analysis in geographical intelligence. Due to a lack of public oversight and accountability, the new political economy of geographical intelligence is not
easy to research, yet there are reasons to be troubled by it and the violent surveillant state it supports.

Key Words:
geographical intelligence, geographical knowledge, GEOINT, government contracting, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.

Annals paper on Geographical Intelligence

I’m very excited to say that our (myself, Sue Roberts and Ate Poorthuis) paper for the Annals of the Association of American Geographers is now at the proofs stage. The first page is below. I believe it will be out in an early 2014 issue.

Pages from Proofs

PDF of first page