Geotagging Ethnographic Photos – Informed Consent?

The New York Times has an article on geotagging, which is a good introduction to the topic and what technology currently exists to implement it. It seems that we are just a few years away from having GPS devices pre-installed in all our cameras (the new chips just cost $4 a pop).

Having recently spent a some time trying to dig through photo archives, I can easily see the advantage of having photos searchable via a map. Looking for pictures from your fieldsite? Just look it up on Google Earth!

There are, of course, privacy concerns. It is hard to keep an informant’s identity secret if the photo you have of their dog shows their exact address. But then, a lot of anthropological practices concerning keeping informants identities under wraps need rethinking in the digital age. It has never been particularly hard to track down an informant if one was sufficiently motivated. Now Google makes it that much easier.

If you really want to get freaked out about privacy issues … the technology already exists to identify the same people across multiple photos, by matching their faces. One could presumably have a map which traces one person’s movements around the world from all the public photos in which she appears.

Makes you think twice about what “informed consent” means when you start thinking about it…

On a related note, you might wish to read Ethan Zuckerman’s description of Hasan Elahi, a conceptual artist whose decided to post his every movement (along with photos) so that the FBI won’t think he’s a terrorist.

5 thoughts on “Geotagging Ethnographic Photos – Informed Consent?

  1. I wonder how much of this “tracking” is due to security reasons, and how much is just “gee-whiz technology” that everyone has got to have. In London you are photographed around 300 times a day, and now European airports want to introduce tracking bracelets for passengers in the airport. Security technology is being sold as preventitive, the “if you ain’t got anthing to hide, well then …”. But what does this do to eye witness accounts, especially where there is a contradiction between the electronic device and the human account? What if the electronic device is hacked–paperless electronic voting booths jump to mind. As for field research, I can foresee papers published via geotracking of regional populations compunded with satellite photos (no need to talk to the people on the ground).

  2. How is there a privacy issue? If you don’t want the tracking info in it, you could just remove it from the metadata.

  3. Well, that’s a decision that you’d have to make isn’t it: whether or not to remove the meta data. Making that decision is a privacy issue. Educating people about the need to make that decision is a privacy issue. I really don’t understand your point …

  4. Okay, fair enough. I just wanted to make clear that there was a decision. “Protect your credit card information”, not “The FBI is watching you”

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