Big tech corporations have an obligation to help in humanitarian recovery

Companies have the capacity to bring relief to grieving families

Sam believes in harnessing satellite tech to identify mass grave sites.

This article discusses the atrocities committed in Residential Schools and may be triggering for some readers. Those seeking support may contact the Office of Indigenous Initiatives and Reconciliation or Four Directions. For immediate assistance, the National Indian Residential School Crisis Hotline can be reached at 1-866-925-4419.

When a massacre is over and the guns go quiet, the killers are left with a logistical nightmare of hiding their victims’ remains. 

How to deal with the bodies of men with bound hands, mothers with torn skirts and children with cracked skulls. How to hide the victims where they can’t be seen or smelt. Where they can be forgotten, where pesky United Nations forensic investigators will struggle to find them. 

The answer repeated throughout history is the ground.

Lucky for efforts to uncover war crimes, the disturbance of soil when digging a mass grave gives us the single biggest bloody fingerprint in forensic science.

Soil strata exist in a careful physical and chemical balance, and disturbances tend to be obvious. However, as any disrupted environment struggles to go back to its former state, nature works hard to remove the open wound. 

Soft tissue is consumed by fungi and bacteria, recalcitrant keratin is broken down by specialized enzymes, and over time, even the hard mineral matrix of bones is ground down or dissolved back into the soil. Above ground, the mound of heaped earth—a tell-tale a sign of displacement—gradually sinks to baseline as vegetation reforms. 

These processes leave barely a scar to mark the resting place of hundreds. This critical period, between inhumation and neutralization, represents our best chance of visually identifying the grave. 

Powerful private companies have a moral and social responsibility to aid humanitarian causes. Many already do through carefully crafted public relations campaigns that make them look good with minimal effort, but it’s not enough. 

Thousands of active artificial satellites in low Earth orbit currently wiz around the planet. As this number only increases every year, so does the equally large number of supposedly inactive satellites. Together, they cover roughly 510 million square km of the Earth. 

Satellites tell us where we are in the world and connect us to other people. They transfer our money, beam us our TV, and give us the 14-day weather forecast. 

They also photograph everything—sometimes in such detail that you can even observe North Korean guards in an apparently ingenuous game of volleyball

Whilst the US government is apparently is in possession of spy satellites with a resolution of 0.10-0.05m/pixel—enough to see a post-it note from space—commercial satellites are officially limited to around 0.3m/pixel in applications such as Synthetic Aperture Radar or Google Maps imagery, which is purchased from companies like Maxar and Airbus. 

These companies, along with others such as Planet and Capella Space, represent a sizable public resource collective. 

They own and operate vast networks or ‘constellations’ of satellites.

Their business model is essentially to sell archived satellite imagery or to allow a client to commandeer a satellite to take fresh images of a specified area. It’s an expensive business whose clientele is comprised of researchers, mining companies, and government agencies. 

High-resolution data of the world’s surface is more accessible than ever. But to whom?

Humanitarian missions with little-to-no profit margins are priced out of this data. While, yes, companies like Maxar are there to make a profit, even a tiny fraction of their time and resources could have incalculable effects. 

Where government resources are tied up in endless Kafkaesque red tape and security concerns, the efficiency and adaptability of big companies positions them as an incredibly valuable tool. 

In 2010, George Clooney and the Enough Project teamed up to create the Sentinel Project to utilize satellite imagery to deter a build-up of tensions along the borders of northern and southern Sudan, and to document crimes against civilians. Now disbanded, the project was one example of how humanitarian missions and private enterprises work together to make a difference.  

Careful selection and analysis of imagery could flag suspect areas in Ukraine to assist in the conflict against Russian invaders. By the time the Ukrainians come in post-fight, they could be prepared and ready to disinter the remains, performing identification and repatriation back to surviving family whilst collating evidence for the historical record. 

In Ethiopia, the government claimed the mass graves it hastily destroyed in April were created by the rebel Tigray People's Liberation Front group. Locating the areas of soil disturbances and creating a chronology could prove the government complicit.

On Sept. 30, National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, Canada soberly reflected on its past. 

The day sought to acknowledge the attempted cultural wipe-out of Indigenous peoples and examine its enduring legacy on the social fabric and mindset of modern Canada. 

The recent discovery of the hundreds to thousands of unmarked graves on previous Residential School grounds was traumatizing. The soil had already reclaimed its balance, and the identities of the children were lost forever. 

It doesn’t need to be this way for every individual who dies a tortured death. Too many people around the world lie commingled and undiscovered, their stories untold, resting next to the evidence that could help prosecute their killers.

The search for mass graves represents one of humanity’s great races against time. 

A race to find the bodies before they can no longer be identified. A race to find the evidence before it disappears into the soil. 

It also goes beyond identifying mass grave sites. Big tech corporations could provide vital aid in the refugee crisis, food shortages, and natural disaster relief. Though many companies already donate, too often is their aid surface-level, tackling current, trendy hot-topic causes that give them maximum positive publicity. 

If these companies opened up their resources and listened to humanitarian missions, maybe together we could make a difference. A real, tangible impact.


Sam McKnight is a third-year archaeology student on exchange at Queen’s from Scotland. 

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