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Satellite Imaging of Cultural Sites in Conflict: A Cautionary Note

The current conflict in Iraq and Syria endangers sites of cultural significance to humanity. Multiple organizations, including the Geospatial Technologies Project of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), have documented the intentional damage to- and often complete destruction of- sites of great historical importance using high-resolution satellite imagery. While satellite imagery and the release of resulting analyses may help pierce the “fog of war” and provide those outside the conflict zone understanding of what is happening on the ground in near real-time, it may also unintentionally place sites at risk of further destruction and put nearby civilian populations in harm’s way. A statement, “Satellite Imaging of Cultural Sites in Conflict: A Cautionary Note,” was created with the input of multiple organizations and individuals engaged in cultural heritage research in the conflict zone. The statement highlights questions created by the humanitarian response community to guide decision-making surrounding the public release of information while operating in sensitive environments. The statement also provides a discussion of the caveats surrounding the use high-resolution imagery to confirm or discount reports of damage to sites—Dr. Susan Wolfinbarger, Director, AAAS Geospatial Technologies Project


Visual data about cultural heritage sites within conflict zones in near real-time has become possible with new technology, particularly satellite imagery. Sensitive information can result from analysis of publically accessible high-resolution commercial products. Researchers and others using this type of information-gathering in sensitive and volatile situations, such as the current conflict in Iraq, face ethical questions related to the public disclosure of such information. They must also consider the technical limitations of satellite technology in analysis.

In order to address these concerns in other sensitive settings, the humanitarian community has established a number of ethical guidelines for action in conflict environments. Foremost among these standards is the Sphere Project’s Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Humanitarian Response. Following these guidelines, all parties should consider the following questions at a minimum, particularly concerning cultural site analysis in Iraq, and when weighing the impact of disclosing research findings:

  • “What does the affected population gain by our activities?”
  • “What might be the unintended negative consequences of our activities for people’s security, and how can we avoid or minimise these consequences?”
  • “Do the activities take into consideration possible protection threats facing the affected population? Might they undermine people’s own efforts to protect themselves?”
  • “Could the activities inadvertently empower or strengthen the position of armed groups or other actors?” 

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has also noted that:

  •  “Protection actors … must analyse the different potential risks linked to the collection, sharing or public display of the information and adapt the way they collect, manage and publicly release the information accordingly.”
  • “Protection actors should be explicit as to the level of reliability and accuracy of information they use or share.”

For these reasons, the limitations of the technology must be communicated clearly. High-resolution satellite imagery has a maximum resolution of 30cm per pixel, thus the smallest object visible must be 30cm by 30cm; to be recognizable it must be significantly larger. Objects that do not meet this size requirement may appear undamaged in satellite imagery. Moreover, portions of sites may be under cover, rendering them invisible to satellites. Consequently, reports of damage may be unverifiable using satellite technology alone.

Taking into account these considerations, extreme caution is urged when using satellite imagery to corroborate on-the-ground or media-reported damage to cultural heritage sites.

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This article is part of the Winter 2015 issue of Professional Ethics Report (PER). PER, which has been in publication since 1988, reports on news and events, programs and activities, and resources related to professional ethics issues, with a particular focus on those professions whose members are engaged in scientific research and its applications.