Getting people into (legal) trouble through mapping

A propos the recent discussion Mapping of "private" security cameras I wanted to share a thought but it’s a bit off-topic for that thread.

One of the issues brought up in the thread was that mapping surveillance cameras can be in the public interest if they are aimed at public spaces.

In my country, private security cameras must not capture public spaces (e.g. the street in front of your house) because that would violate the privacy of people in that public space.

Therefore, assuming OSM had exhaustive mapping of security cameras and their estimated area of coverage, law enforcement could use OSM to run automatic analyses about whom to pay a visit to check their security cameras.

Now many of you will say, that’s great, let those privacy-violating surveillance creeps get what they deserve!

But, with ever more detailed mapping, are we perhaps starting to become an arm of the “surveillance state” ourselves?

If someone has a swimming pool in their garden and doesn’t pay taxes for it (reportedly there are countries with swimming pool taxes!) - authorities can simply check OSM-recorded swimming pools against the taxpayer database and pay the swimming pool owner a visit.

If a small restaurant has put up a few chairs out on the pavement without having applied for the proper license - nobody would care normally, but thanks to OSM someone in the city administration can simply check for all places where we have recorded outdoor seating, and tell them to stop.

Yes, we only record what is visible anyway, but my point is, the guy in the city administration won’t send people round to check because it is too much effort. A lot of things happen in everyday life that are not “legal” but nobody cares, and there’s a certain freedom in that. (Do you even know how often you have crossed a traffic light on red, as a pedestrian?) Are we, with our ever more detailed recording of publicly visible things, perhaps engaged in something akin to “surveillance” ourselves? Are we, in working on our free and open map, reducing freedom for others?

And yes, I am talking of “freedom to violate the law” - if only in a small way. If your reply to this is “then simply don’t violate the law, you’ll have nothing to fear” then you have obviously not watched enough dystopian sci-fi :wink:

I am aware that this is a somewhat philosophical topic. What are your thoughts? Have you been in a situation where you refrained from mapping something, to avoid getting people into trouble?

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Now many of you will say, that’s great, let those privacy-violating surveillance creeps get what they deserve!

But, with ever more detailed mapping, are we perhaps starting to become an arm of the “surveillance state” ourselves?

If someone has a swimming pool in their garden and doesn’t pay taxes for it (reportedly there are countries with swimming pool taxes!) - authorities can simply check OSM-recorded swimming pools against the taxpayer database and pay the swimming pool owner a visit.

If a small restaurant has put up a few chairs out on the pavement without having applied for the proper license - nobody would care normally, but thanks to OSM someone in the city administration can simply check for all places where we have recorded outdoor seating, and tell them to stop.

These are all great examples which show why all of these uses are in the best common interest of society and earth’s population as a whole. Regardless of having to pay taxes or not, private swimming pools are for sure consuming an unproportionate amount of best drinking water, typically in countries with hot climate where scarcity of water is an issue in general. When restaurants occupy the public space in front of their private space, it is their fair duty to respect all relevant legislation (and from my local experience in a place where tourism is a main factor and space is limited, I can assure you that this is well looked after despite osm is not involved at all, business owners not only have to apply for a permission, they also have to pay by the occupied square meter and day (an insignificantly low fee) and local police will measure it frequently with surveys, at least in hotspots). Of course more information will enable a lot of usecases that wouldn’t be possible without it, and some of these will be seen with suspicion, but there are also clearly benefitial applications for the information that a place has outdoor seating.

Yes, we only record what is visible anyway, but my point is, the guy in the city administration won’t send people round to check because it is too much effort. A lot of things happen in everyday life that are not “legal” but nobody cares, and there’s a certain freedom in that.

I think it is not Germany you are writing about, or maybe that’s Baden :wink: More seriously, OSM is not authorative, everybody can put anything there, it is no proof that a building was in OSM since 2009 despite the fact no building is there in the official land register. Yes, it might make things easier to evaluate in an automated way (if the official land register is available electronically and in a suitable form), but again this is about information being useful in many different, unexpected ways.

Mapping traffic lights will not make it easier to “catch” pedestrians who cross on red (camera surveillance and forcing pedestrians to wear “number plates” or maybe something similar to an rfid-chip, would). I would be interested to learn specifically which offences should we facilitate by refraining from mapping certain things or properties?

Yes, this is a clear yes, unfortunately I cannot tell you here, but next time we meet I could tell it off the record. In other occasions, I also refrained from mapping something to avoid getting myself into trouble. A general remark would be mapping the whereabouts of endangered animals or plants. Maybe not illegal, but personally I would not map these.

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I don’t know. I fear that by the time we do know, it will be too late and we will have brought misery to people. I also object to your wording. I think that mapping too much can make us into part of a surveillance apparatus and you seem to say that not being part of a surveillance apparatus means that we “facilitate offences”. In extension that would mean that everyone who does not put up a security camera “facilitates offences”…?

objection rejected. Your extension is not valid because not everyone wants to put security cameras up, and the reason for not putting them up is not to make crime easier, contrary to this every mapper wants to map. You wrote we should consider deliberately not mapping something (“what is visible anyway”) to keep things happening in everyday life which are not “legal”. In my understanding this is facilitating, refraining to do something you would normally do so that something illegal can continue to exist (more easily).

I am all in that not everything that is illegal somewhere in the world should indeed remain to be illegal, and I do see the danger of having a system change and waking up one morning and seeing everything we built in a different light. But none of your examples were convincing to me, all this should indeed happen, e.g. I welcome authorities to go after people who are wrongfully appropriating the public space for their own profit, who are wasting drinking water and betraying their society by evading the taxes foreseen for it, or setting up illegal surveillance cameras which monitor the public space. If you build your house higher than it is permitted, it means you are stealing the sun from your neighbours. If there are good arguments to refrain from mapping something specifically, I am quite interested.

From the field of ethics, what I would most like to discuss is negating the military and intelligence services to use our data (legally, it won’t be a real problem for them anyway, as the services generally and systematically do not adhere to the legality principles, as can be read every second day in the news). Last time I proposed this, it was completely rejected because it would mean discriminating by field of endeavor.

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Yes, we are.

No, we are not. The authorities involved in each of the cases you cite are the ones potentially reducing freedom.

That is the tradeoff when working to enable free and open anything. It means that even people you don’t like get to use it.

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@woodpeck: Reading advice for you:

Next step:
:thinking:

(Even at the risk of being put on the list of mappers who violate OSM’s rules by a seemingly liberal-minded person here…)

I am familiar with that document but I don’t think it is relevant to
what I wanted to say; the document explains that we favour on-the-ground
reality over political wishful thinking, it doesn’t say just how deeply
we probe into on-the-ground reality :wink:

I think that’s the core of it. Even the most basic “armchair mapping” activity, of mapping roads from aerial imagery, might end up helping the military of a government you don’t like as they plan an invasion of a location you do like. Or for perhaps a less intense example, might help a giant corporate conglomerate optimize their delivery methods in a way that helps them put that friendly local store you really liked out of business.

It’s certainly worth being mindful that creating open data means that it’s just “out there”, and pausing for a minute before publishing something to consider the implications certainly can be wise. But I think in most cases, for most things, the benefits of having open data outweigh the drawbacks.

(And besides, with how quickly AI is advancing, having a system to present a list of “possible illegal swimming pools” to the enforcers based on scanning aerial imagery may just be a normal thing they can use, whether open data on them is there or not.)

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This would be illegal in Nederland I think. It would be surveilling everyone and everything for the sake of catching a few and that’s illegal here.
It should stay that way.

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Governments absolutely use geodata towards what may in some ways be surveillance of their own population, or just regular governing and regulation.

That is why the bulk of geodata in the world is located in government and military databases, often fully inaccessible, or partly inaccessible to the general public.

OSM is a tiny project compared the the wast resources spent on the internal mapping of countries, and ultimately not all that important to most governments.

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I’m definitely with you. The law is to help the people, it’s not the other way around.

Not quite the same thing, but (to me at least) definitely connected …

I’ve often wondered about the people who map in China, & also those who (on Discord) have their locations listed as China, which forbids all forms of private mapping?

Aren’t they taking a bit of a risk?

Not quite the same thing, but (to me at least) definitely connected …

I was trying to discuss getting other people in trouble, you are
discussing getting yourself in trouble!

I’ve often wondered about the people who map in China, & also those who
(on Discord) have their locations listed as China, which forbids all
forms of private mapping?

China is not the only authoritarian place that takes a dim view of such
activities. – I’d say that these mappers are either reckless, or
courageous, or employed by the state…

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Provocative questions!

The tax authorities in my country have routinely consulted aerial imagery for decades to assess property values and catch tax evasion. In fact, it’s a major reason why any aerial imagery here is available for OSM to use, be it from governmental or commercial sources.

Ironically, this is the first impression that many people have about me when they find out that I spend my time staring at people’s rooftops on a computer screen and walking around taking notes about shops. The fact that I’m a volunteer, a hobbyist, is precisely what raises eyebrows. Ground truth is none of my business the way it would be for a paid mapper. A classic OSM high vis jacket would’ve gotten me out of trouble more than once. Seems kind of backwards, no?

If we’re concerned about the moral implications of accidentally ratting someone out to the government, then there’s also the aspect of intentionally shaming others in society. Quite a few mappers have scoured street-level imagery for flag:wikidata=Q55874812 to tag over the past few years. I suppose we technically don’t know how many of these mappers are Confederate sympathizers and how many are antiracists who are targeting the often privately owned flags for criticism and removal. Criticism and removal would be my strong preference, but the data is now available however one intends to use it.

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The topic proposal is good.

Actually, I would like to eventually transform the topic
towards the development of Ethical Mapping Guidelines for OpenStreetMap.
( ~ ‘Ethical Mapper’ )

(Recollections of problems encountered in the Hungarian OSM community)

The swimming pool is an interesting case study: If I remember correctly, at one of the meetups, we visited the nearby fire station, and it seemed that this information could be useful for the firefighters. Because they can use the water from a nearby filled pool for firefighting. So, this is something that the local community should decide.

However, a continuous problem is the mapping of unmarked private areas; because if we draw a path, then gradually more tourists start to visit. And this causes problems in National Parks as well…

When I talked with Hungarian biologists interested in open data, they emphasized not to map the nesting sites of protected birds and locations of protected plants.
(The exception: stork nests high up, e.g., on electricity poles.)
I wonder, is it ethical to map penguin breeding sites on OSM?"

There have also been instances where the mapping of specially protected research institute buildings was flagged for being too detailed. But in this case, we were somewhat able to reassure the person who raised the issue.

Or the case of illegal dumping sites. If we put them on the map, does it lead to more trash being dumped there?

And then there are the over-politicized and highly polarized topics as well, which vary in each country and community. For example, the ethics of mapping border areas; this can be associated with facilitating illegal migration? And this is exactly the kind of topic where I don’t expect an answer here. This question always has to be tackled by the local community, since they are the ones with ‘skin in the game’.

When everything is extremely politicized, unfortunately, any data can also become a weapon. For instance, someone pointed out to me that accessibility information can always be used to criticize the current government, as the EU’s accessibility requirements are very difficult to meet.


Another interesting topic could be the case of ( Wi-Fi ) passwords.


Of course, there are also studies on the ethical values of OpenStreetMap:


It would actually be beneficial if the educational material for beginner OSM contributors included some ethical and legal sections, so they face these issues as early as possible.

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Surveillance cameras are an interesting example, adding a simple warning would be a good start IMO. Some people might be unaware that they might get someone in trouble, so reading such a warning can prevent them from doing something they don’t actually want to do. Forcing ethical standards is far more controversial than making people aware of the impact of their actions.

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I realize what I am about to say is USA-centric, but it does color a discussion like this for hundreds of millions of people.

In the USA, we have a constitution, and the first of its Amendments (part of the first 10 known as “the Bill of Rights”) has five elements: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, of our ability to redress our government(s) for grievances, freedom to assemble (like in a crowd or to protest) and freedom of press. On that last point, our (federal, top-level) Supreme Court has said that we may use cameras to take pictures of anything in public (stemming from using cameras to observe, say, police officers in the line of duty, as our employees, also part of redressing our government). In short, when in public, “the eyes may not be trespassed.” This means that observing anything while in public, including right up to the edge of private property (and “looking into” said private property) is 100% legal. If you, as the private property owner are offended by this, then draw the blinds or curtains! There really is such a thing as a boundary line, and not only can anybody walk right up to the edge of it, they may capture whatever they see and hear while located outside of the edge of the private property. Including towards and “into” said property!

It is a fact that many, even most places, whether public (say, a library or a local government building) is very likely video recording all who enter and wander its hallways. But when a citizen comes into a public building with a camera, they are often challenged. (Such challenges are wrong, the citizen has every right to “film in public”). However, visiting a private business (a restaurant, clothing store, fuel station) or private residence, a person does not have the “right to film” unless permission is granted by the owner or his/her agent.

While I won’t say I fully understand what it is that happens in other countries, I do understand that the rules are different between countries. Sure, it’s understandable that being filmed, being part of what somebody “observes so I can later make a map of this area…” can be seen as suspicious. But “being suspicious” is not a crime (in the entirety of the USA). And while “suspicious behavior” can make people uncomfortable, this is neither the fault of nor a problem for the mapper. It is purely upon the person who feels uncomfortable to “deal with it.”

Thank you for allowing me to share some perspective I hope can shed light on the very wide spectrum of both legal behavior and expectations people have of others “when in public.”

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Yes, that also reflects in the way people complain about stuff that is mapped in OSM and that they don’t want mapped (speaking from DWG experience here): When someone from Europe complains they will usually claim “you have no right to map my private path because it is PRIVATE!” (a claim that in most cases doesn’t hold water but that’s the attitude), whereas someone from the US will usually construct their complaint like so: “Your mapping of my private path causes property damage and I will sue you for DAMAGES!”

I’m glad you say “a claim that in most cases doesn’t hold water but that’s the attitude.” Because it seems the operative “working attitude” (in both my example from the USA of “I’m merely observing what is in public here, and you have no ‘right to privacy’ in public” as well as one you might posit in Europe of “hey, ‘mapper,’ you shouldn’t be allowed to look around / take pictures / use a GPS… around here like that!”) is one of “I have the right to control what it is you SEE (and record, so you can make a map) while you are in PUBLIC!”

This is nonsense, of course (to me, in the USA, there may be other places where I would be seen as wrong): people have no expectation of privacy while in public.

But to say that “someone from the US will usually construct their complaint…as…your mapping…causes property damage and I will sue you” is simply much too strong and much too wrong. I have never heard that once by anybody in the US while mapping, and I would be both surprised and ready to dissuade and dismiss them with facts, law and a piece of my opinion about how wrong they are.

People who “don’t want something mapped in OSM” are initially (by me) educated on the many wonderful benefits of exactly that. If they aren’t so persuaded, I leave them (and usually plan to map whatever it is I came to see anyway), without harsh words about anybody suing anybody.

There is no "property damage’ caused by somebody mapping something. It is likely this quite wrong-headed assumption that is the root of such hurt feelings.

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I refrain mapping informal paths since a couple of years to protect wildlife.
Not so much legality involved in that matter.