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Collect it all: national security, Big Data and governance


This paper is a case study of complications of Big Data. The case study draws from the US intelligence community, but the issues are applicable on a wide scale to Big Data. There are two ways Big Data are making a big impact: a reconceptualization of (geo)privacy, and “algorithmic security.” Geoprivacy is revealed as a geopolitical assemblage rather than something possessed and is part of emerging political economy of technology and neoliberal markets. Security has become increasingly algorithmic and biometric, enrolling Big Data to disambiguate the biopolitical subject. Geoweb and remote sensing technologies, companies, and knowledges are imbricated in this assemblage of algorithmic security. I conclude with three spaces of intervention; new critical histories of the geoweb that trace the relationship of geography and the state; a fuller political economy of the geoweb and its circulations of geographical knowledge; and legislative and encryption efforts that enable the geographic community to participate in public debate.

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  1. Wikileaks identified country X as Afghanistan (

  2. See

  3. See

  4. See

  5. The government was unable to determine if about 300,000 cleared individuals were government employees or contractors, so 1 m contractors is likely to be a lower bound.


  7. See

  8. According to Gellman et al. (2014) a “target” may indicate a single individual or an IP address used by hundreds of persons.

  9. See

  10. The contract was signed in 2010 but has since been complicated by government sequestration and cut-backs, and the merging of DigitalGlobe and GeoEye in early 2013. The contract provided government funds for WorldView-3, DigitalGlobe’s 0.31 m resolution satellite launched in August 2014. Six months after launch, DigitalGlobe will be permitted to sell panchromatic imagery up to 0.25 m.

  11. One geopolitical complication is that the launches take place in Baikonur Cosmodrome, which is Russian-controlled. US sanctions against Russia may prohibit future launches.

  12. One company, DigitalGlobe, has approximately 50 petabytes of data.

  13. The Supreme Court case United States v. Jones has proved to be the most significant ruling to date. The justices ruled that a GPS tracker placed on a car without a warrant was unconstitutional (although violation of privacy was not determining).

  14. For example, Internet companies such as Google and Yahoo could practice encryption such as PGP. However, there are market and government forces strongly resisting such a development. For these companies the user is a “product” whose privacy is bought and sold on. Additionally, the companies are susceptible to a National Security Letter (NSL) which could secretly demand the master encryption key from the company. There is no recourse against a secret NSL, except ultimately to shut down the service, as the Lavabit email company did—an unlikely action for a Silicon Valley company. To the contrary, the Snowden documents show extensive private–public surveillance cooperation.


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Correspondence to Jeremy W. Crampton.

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Crampton, J.W. Collect it all: national security, Big Data and governance. GeoJournal 80, 519–531 (2015).

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  • Big Data
  • Privacy
  • National security
  • Geoweb
  • Political economy