Remote sensing technology, big data and AI use for environmental governance: What implications for SSG/R?

by Fredrik Wallin · March 31st, 2023.

Advances in remote sensing and the introduction of artificial intelligence have radically transformed the possibilities for security sector actors in environmental monitoring. This holds a significant potential for both environmental protection and disaster risk reduction – subject to good governance of the security sector.

The increasing use and availability of satellites and drones for remote sensing as well as other mobile and stationary sensors has made the collection of data on the environment cheaper and more accessible. Moreover, artificial intelligence and automation can facilitate the analysis of such big data. For instance, these means can support the detection of imminent natural disasters as well as environmental crimes, two important tasks for the security sector. For example, this technological development could help law enforcement identify environmental crimes, or to provide adequate disaster risk management measures to protect citizens. Beyond the benefits, the application of such technology always comes with a risk of undermining privacy and being coopted for other means than people-centred and planetary security. This blog aims to outline what actions SSG/R can take in the nexus of environmental governance maximise the benefits of remote sensing and technological advances in environmental governance and surveillance while upholding human security and rule of law.

Supporting the Battle Against Environmental Crimes

Existing technologies come in different forms, shapes, and sizes, which can be leveraged for environmentally conscious SSG/R. Security and justice actors with a mandate in environmental governance can use them for their benefit through observation, automation, data collection, participation, and transformation. For instance, people with access to mobile or smart phones, especially with cameras, can more easily report environmental degradation, such as illegal waste dumping. More remote and broad sensing technologies include satellites and drones, which collect data relevant for forest analysis, measuring fish populations and detecting illegal mines. The latter two offer concrete opportunities in SSG/R: First, when it comes to fish detection, remote sensing capabilities can be combined with floating underwater detection devices, which attract fish and can help estimate their amount, supporting the battle against illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing as well as the implementation and enforcement of the recently adopted UN High Seas Treaty and other international conventions. Second, potentially unregistered mining sites have been pointed out through the application of artificial intelligence, whereby map data was juxtaposed to mine registration data which could render the fight against illegal mining more efficient. Consequently, SSG/R should recognize the potential of technology in delivering evidence for both security and justice actors in the prosecution of environmental perpetrators. At the same time, it is important to consider ongoing maintenance and capacity building for example, so that technologies are updated and maintained, and their applications overseen.

Strengthening Disaster Risk Management

In addition to the benefits of technology applied in environmental crime detection, the respective implications also concern disaster risk management by security actors. Data collected by sensors to measure levels of different gases, air pollution and heat can help detect forest fires, especially through means of artificial intelligence. Sensors can also be used in relation to floodings when installed at bridges to better inform decision-makers about the risks for the civil population. Both sensor technologies are relevant in SSG/R to strengthen automated and precise early warning and evacuation mechanisms. Remote sensing further contributes to disaster management, both for risk assessments and getting quick data on loss and damages, as well as water and food security efforts. Technology can also be used to counter disinformation, especially during disaster situations. For instance, drones can take pictures or film an area affected by a hurricane, or social media posts can be analysed to detect false information as well as people in distress, and AI can contribute to a quicker assessment of sensor data in case of potential flooding as well as earthquakes. Therefore, technology has a lot of potential to enhance disaster risk management by the security sector including fire brigades, law enforcement, civil contingency services and the defence.

Risks of Using Technology and AI

Despite the promising outlooks for the use of emerging technologies by the security sector to improve responses to environmental crime and disaster risk management, the remaining risks should not be overlooked by the international community. While the increased use of AI and big data should in general be approached cautiously (see also our recent Advisory Note on Artificial Intelligence and SSG/R), two key recommendations related to present risks become evident:

First, environmental defenders are globally exposed to harassment, prosecution and other risks, be it due to private or state-based actors. Hence, the implementation of any means of technology for environmental protection or disaster management should be accompanied by means of governance that consider people-centred and planetary security and local circumstances. Furthermore, sound data and victim protection laws should be put in place. Attempts of this include a suggestion by the European Commission or the Humanitarian UAV Code of Conduct, which outlines basic behaviours when using drone technology in the aftermath of disasters to uphold human rights and put people as well as good data management at the centre. In short, adequate legal frameworks must be strengthened to accommodate legitimate use of big data collection and analysis tools.

Second, when it comes to technology and the potential spread of fake news in disaster situations, governance solutions should account for both the benefits and difficulties. For instance, in an analysis of the social media posts concerning the Boston Marathon bombing, a large amount of fake news was found, which can skew the informativeness of such data. Hence, while ensuring openness of information channels for and of victims as well as freedom of speech laws, good governance should make sure to limit fake news.

Key Take-Aways

In sum, the implications of increased data collection and analysis in relation to environmental governance for SSG/R are manifold. While their potential should be recognized and fully leveraged, human security and rule of law need to get equal attention:

  • International partners should integrate new technologies into their SSG/R interventions, especially to multiply scarce human resources and access remote or fragile areas.
  • This means on the one hand providing the right type of equipment and capacity building to partners, so these technologies can be used effectively, and capacities maintained sustainably.
  • On the other hand, reform processes should ensure that legal frameworks for a legitimate, transparent and accountable use of technology are rights-based and people-centred, recognizing concern for privacy, data protection and human rights.
  • Applying new technologies for people-centered and planetary security such as environmental protection and disaster risk management can be leveraged to increase the legitimacy of security sectors and governments, build trust and strengthen social cohesion.

Photo by USGS on Unsplash. The picture displays the Nile River in Egypt. 

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