– Jambula, verb, the Chichewa word meaning to record on film or cassette [1].

Do I have the right to capture your image on film?

In the UK, in a public place I have the right to take the photograph, but I don’t necessarily have the right to publish the image.  I can’t use it to promote or advertise a product or idea or political ideology.  I can’t use a recognisable photograph of you to make money.  I probably can use it as an artwork, if I can demonstrate an additional process of creativity.

I can use it as evidence of a crime, but I would be invading your privacy if I photographed you doing something you “shouldn’t”.  Google Street View blurs people’s faces automatically using bespoke software to avoid legal problems, but you can still be recognised…  “A furious wife has called in divorce lawyers after spotting her husband’s car parked outside another woman’s house”.  Other reported cases include a man leaving a sex shop and an office worker who was caught having a crafty cigarette by a No Smoking sign.  Nobody asked them for their permission.

The airborne imagery in Google is already high resolution, showing enough detail to pick out cars and people. The satellite images in Google are very nearly at the same scale. It is certainly worth running out into the garden and lying on the grass whenever you hear a small aircraft overhead (I do that regularly with the boys!).  Topless sunbathers, rooftop nooky and cars in wrong places (affairs, job skiving, etc) have all been reported in such imagery.

Invasion of privacy or simply recording electromagnetic radiation that is in the public domain?


A satellite at 600km in altitude can capture enough details to see (and recognise?) cars, buildings, boats, huts… trees.   Satellites are unfettered by political boundaries, are silent voyeurs, and certainly don’t ask for permission. With the right knowledge and an internet connection, you can find out when you will be imaged, but its not easy.  It is possible to use satellites (also aircraft, but harder to do it with stealth) to evaluate a landscape, to predict crop yields, to prospect for precious minerals and nature resources… to quantify the value of carbon in a forest. State of the art, high resolution, digital imagery, not that unlike a digital camera, except you don’t get to see the image immediately after it is taken. Certainly all without requesting permission – not of the government, and certainly not of the people who live there.


The earliest land surveying satellite, Landsat in the early 1970s, was supposedly promoted by the CIA to give civilian scientist the opportunity to evaluate how effectively a multispectral satellite could predict the crop yield of the Soviet Union.  Early knowledge on crop yield helps predict economic conditions and political instabilities, key elements of military intelligence during the Cold War.

Today, it’s the economy, stupid (to misrepresent the Clinton campaign slogan). The new warmer war is about economic security and superiority, and that is what currently drives the rhetoric of climate change too – the recent reports to government by Stern and Eliasch are about the economic impact of climate change. The East (China)-West (everyone else) conflict in Africa is all about economics, not political ideology. It’s a grab for natural resources, including land itself (for food security) and all the goodies underneath.  On the surface, there is forest carbon.  Carbon harvesting is a service that the Northern hemisphere is willing to pay for  … with the potential to turn forests into important economic resources.  While some benefactors in the North have volunteered money to offset their carbon by buying protection of forest carbon, there are now real investors on the scene.  True capitalist investors are already buying forested land to secure early investment in a resource that they believe will increase in value.  How do they decide where to buy? They use aircraft and satellite imagery to support field data, as a means of evaluating the resource and recording it.

They don’t ask permission.


[1] Some random thoughts following interesting discussions in Malawi, Dec 2010, with Alice Ladenburg.

1 Comment

  1. Iain, I suggest you creat a space where we can upload photographs from Malawi…of trees and landscape…some sort of ground truthing!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s