Nuclear Weapons | Readout and Recommendations

The Gray Spectrum: Ethical Decision Making with Geospatial and Open Source Analysis

January 2020


Geospatial and open source analysts face decisions in their work that can directly or indirectly cause harm to individuals, organizations, institutions, and society. Though analysts may try to do the right thing, such ethically informed decisions can be complex. This is particularly true for analysts working on issues related to nuclear nonproliferation or international security, analysts whose decisions on whether to publish certain findings could have far-reaching consequences. These experts may not have access to ethical guidance and resources that can improve decision making, enhance the professionalism of their craft, deter unethical behavior, or provide support systems for difficult decisions.

In July 2019, the Stanley Center for Peace and Security and the Open Nuclear Network (ONN) program of One Earth Future Foundation convened a workshop with nonproliferation experts, open source intelligence analysts, journalists, and stakeholders from satellite imagery firms. The workshop asked participants to explore ethical challenges with their work, identify needed resources, and consider options for enhancing the ethical practices of geospatial and open source analysis communities.

This Readout & Recommendations brings forward observations from that workshop. It describes ethical challenges that stakeholders from relevant communities face. It concludes with a list of needs participants identified, along with possible strategies for promoting sustaining behaviors that could enhance the ethical conduct of the community of nonproliferation analysts working with geospatial and open source data.

Key Findings

  • A code of ethics could serve important functions for the community, including giving moral guidance to practitioners, enhancing public trust in their work, and deterring unethical behavior. Participants in the workshop saw a significant value in such a code and offered ideas for developing one.
  • Awareness of ethical dilemmas and strong ethical reasoning skills are essential for sustaining ethical practices, yet professionals in this field might not have easy access to such training. Several approaches could improve ethics education for the field overall, including starting a body of literature, developing model curricula, and offering training for students and professionals.
  • Peer support groups could help analysts better navigate difficult analytical and ethical questions with their work. It could also help sustain enhanced ethical practices and foster a culture of accountability within the community.
  • Other stakeholders—governments, commercial providers, funders, organizations, management teams, etc.—should contribute to the discussion on ethics in the community and reinforce sustaining behaviors.