Invasion of Privacy

A very, very cool, yet simultaneously disconcerting thing happened moments ago.  While reviewing this past summer’s field work with some students for annual report preparation, we opened Google Earth to take a look at a .kml file where I documented specimen sites.  I zoomed in to a site where we spent four days excavating a partial mosasaur skeleton.  While looking at the air photos, one of the students exclaimed, “Isn’t that our boat!?”

Sure enough, on closer inspection, our excavation was indeed documented on the most recent photo arrays in Google Earth.  Because this excavation took place on public land, I can only reveal minimal portions of the imagery here, but I’ll include enough below to prove that this is, indeed, our excavation site.

Our boat, used to access the site.
Our boat, used to access the site.

At first this was pretty cool.  What are the chances of our four day excavation project being captured by Google Earth photography?  We now join the ranks of strange and wonderful things that can be found by virtually exploring our planet.   We were even able to determine the date and approximate time the photos were taken.

But, as I contemplate these events further, I’m becoming increasingly anxious about the whole thing.  Despite my best efforts to maintain the security of the sites we access for our agency partners, this information is still available for all to see, however improbable it may be for someone to virtually stumble across it.

Indeed, anyone can stumble across an ongoing excavation site on public land.  Hikers, campers, hunters, fisherman, or geocachers, all have the potential to find specimens in the process of removal.  But our images on Google Earth now mean that anyone sitting at their computers can get precise, georeferenced information about excavation activities that occurred within three months of today.  The implications for the security of fossil sites are staggering.  The potential for constructive use of this imagery is great, but so is the potential for poaching or vandalism.

Large white spot in center is the jacket, blue spot is tarp covering backfill.
Large white spot in center is the jacket, blue spot is tarp covering backfill.

Most of us see the immediate access to knowledge and current events the internet provides as a very good thing; most of the time it is.  However, the ramifications of near real time imagery made publicly available have really hit home for me this afternoon.

And then there’s the issue of UAVs in amateur hands…*shudder*…

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