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The surveillance state spying on bark, leaf, ape

Logging in the Amazon is closely linked with road building.
Brasil2 | E+ | Getty Images
Logging in the Amazon is closely linked with road building.

The relationship between corporations and the globe's forests has always ranged from cooperation to conflict.

Henry Ford drove his company deep into the Amazon in an ill-fated attempt to create an empire of rubber for the manufacture of car tires. The founder of the modern conservation movement and the Sierra Club, John Muir, was a close friend to major capitalist barons of his era who possessed a conservationist bent, including railroad magnet Edward Henry Harriman, whose historic purchase of Union Pacific included a bet on the value of the railroad-owned timber land.

Today's version of the cooperation and conflict between business and environmental interests is a little different.

Take computer scientist Rebecca Moore, engineering manager for Google Earth Engine, a global-scale data-mining initiative that crunches information from satellite imagery so the technology can be applied to social issues. Moore also heads Google Earth Outreach, which supports nonprofits and global communities.

When Google Earth was first launched, most people didn't know what to do with it, other than look at their neighbor's backyard. Moore said. She had other ideas, though—using the satellite imagery from Google Earth to prove that a logging plan was illegal in her own "backyard."

"I used it myself to stop logging of a thousand acres of Redwoods in my community. That was seen as the first environmental grass roots use of it, and then NGOs started contacting me," Moore said.

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Now, the forest surveillance state has gone global, and while Google Earth Engine data-crunching might is the technology backbone, it's an effort that involves some of the biggest consumer products companies in the world, Nestlé and Unilever, working in conjunction with one of the largest global conservation NGOs, the World Resources Institute.

Early efforts to apply Moore's local experiment to global forest issues took Google's technology to Brazil, where Google Earth imagery was able to help indigenous chiefs map incursions into tribal areas by logging—showing in stark relief the border between a verdant stretch of Amazon and a clear-cut landscape. But while Google Earth was great for visualization, the technology that was really needed by scientists was a means to use satellite data to monitor change in forests over time. The world is losing more than a million acres a year to deforestation and much of it is illegal and often in areas lacking good, if any, law enforcement.

"Scientists told us methods exist to analyze daily satellite data and detect change and issue alerts, but the scale of data was so enormous they couldn't do it on their own computers," Moore said.

In the coming years, anyone, anywhere in the world will be able to use a computer to zoom in on forests around the globe, in real-time and in high resolution, and down to the level of 1 meter of physical space, watching what an orangutan in Borneo is up to in the trees. In other words, all the world's environmental data will be captured by NASA and private satellites and crunched by Google Earth Engine into a living and breathing model of the planet.

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"If you do the math on the data required ... to map the world at 1 meter per pixel, it is an enormous step change," Moore said.

Currently, the view of the world's forests is limited by a government process: Satellite data gets recorded on tapes that are stored by the U.S. Geological Survey in a vault in South Dakota. If you want access, a formal request has to be made to get the data off the tape and that takes days.

The first real milestone using the satellite data is an updated view of the forests every 16 days down to the level of 15 meters. With new NASA satellites in orbit and privately run, venture capital-backed companies including Skybox and Planet-Labs planning to launch satellites, the streaming view of the globe's forests down to 1 meter on a daily basis will be a reality within a few years.

"It will be incredible," Moore said.

In the Amazon, Brazil's pioneering rainforest organization Imazon uses technology closest to an existing example of what will be possible in the next few years on a global scale.

The World Resources Institute is the front face of the effort, through its Global Forest Watch 2.0 program. Nigel Sizer, the director of WRI's global forest initiatives, said the ubiquity of palm oil in products lining supermarket aisles is among the main reasons for deforestation. He said it's a major concern for the companies in the Consumer Goods Forum, like Nestlé and Unilever, which is a partner to WRI on Global Forest Watch, as well as a partner to the U.S .Agency for International Development's efforts to combat climate change. Fifty percent of global deforestation can be traced back to four industries: palm oil, pulp paper, beef and soy.

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"This will give everyone everywhere access to what is happening in the forests at resolution never seen before and with an interface Website that is as simple as using a Google map," Sizer said. "We're breaking through barriers here in terms of timeliness of info, quality and coverage, and ease of access for people who would use this data to make decisions if only they had access to it," he added.

Those people include Nestlé, the maker of the Kit Kats, among other consumer staples that rely on a steady supply of palm oil from plantations that border sensitive, protected forestland.

Nestlé spokesman Philippe Aeschlimann said via email, "We do see GFW2.0 [Global Forest Watch 2.0] as an important tool for Nestlé in helping us prioritize where we should be focusing our efforts to tackle deforestation in our supply chains."

It's not just corporate public relations. Companies like Nestlé and Unilever face serious business risks as a result of deforestation. The Lacey Act covering illegal trafficking was updated in the 2008 to incorporate potential criminal charges for executives whose companies illegally source raw materials. The highest-profile case brought under the revised Lacey Act was against Gibson Guitar for illegal sourcing of wood. Gibson settled with the Department of Justice, but the threat of criminal charges is enough to spur companies like Nestlé to snoop on the globe's forests, so they can prove when they are not to blame for deforestation.

"You don't want to be caught doing business with a supplier breaking the law. Palm oil suppliers are illegally burning forests in Indonesia, and if they are your supplier, it's a big problem...executives can go to jail," Sizer said.

And with campaigns like this Greenpeace video showing an office worker eating a Kit Kat with a "special forest surprise" hidden inside the packaging—a video that went viral—companies like Nestlé want to be ahead on issues where environmental provocateurs like Greenpeace are aggressively targeting their business's impact.

"Nestlé had its 'Greenpeace moment' and learned from it, and that's a painful moment for a globally recognized brand, and they are an easy target," Sizer said. Companies like Nestlé, as well as NGOs, will be able to "refute the claims being made," Sizer said.

"The GFW2.0 will provide this information on a more regular basis, plus deeper insights into the concession owners," the Nestlé spokesman said.

Or as Google's Moore put it, "It's undeniable documentation."

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While the global forest monitoring service hasn't launched yet, it has already been put to the test: In June, when fires in the Riau province of Indonesia raged, the blame game began. "GFW2.0 was able to provide almost daily updates and identify the companies behind the fires," the Nestlé spokesman said.

Indonesia is the largest palm oil producer in the world. The massive burning during the fires in Sumatra resulted in "off-the-scales air pollution," according to Sizer, the worst ever reported in Singapore, and a state of emergency in Malaysia.

"Within the space of half a day, we were able to produce an overlay of where company operations were, which we had in the database, and where fire alerts were," Sizer said. It was close to real-time analysis of where the blame should be placed, with a 24-hour lag, he added, and the narrative in the media coverage of the fires became technological sleuthing and assigning of responsibility.

"When we launched Global Forest Watch 15 years ago, it was before we really knew what it would mean. The technology just wasn't commensurate with the vision we had," Sizer said.

Kit Batten, USAID's global climate change coordinator, said the Indonesia fires and the role of Global Forest Watch "is a herald for what is to come. It's a first taste of what this technology can do and in much finer granularity of space and time moving forward." She added, "I don't think it's just reactive. As this information gets out there and as knowledge gets out there—to be monitoring in real time, that has a ripple effect."

By Eric Rosenbaum, CNBC.com

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