Spatial Law and Geospatial Technologies

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Taking a look at spatial and and geospatial technologies, this is the second of a three-article series on Spatial Law that focuses on the issues surrounding spatial technologies, the responsibilities and legalities thereon. 

Recent decades have witnessed a rapid growth in the adoption of spatial technology. The stakeholders are government, businesses, consumers and society, as both providers and users of GIS. However, as technologies evolve, policies too need to change in response.

2a. Remote Sensing and Satellite Imagery

Imagery is a core element of any country’s national defense, homeland security, intelligence operations and foreign policy. Most countries have a Remote Sensing Policy in place that adopts a robust approach towards the needs of critical intelligence. The objective is to protect access to data in high security zones and regulate distribution of commercial imagery. In the U.S. for instance, the Commercial Remote Sensing Space Policy (CRSSP) of 2003, the National and Commercial Space Programs Act (NCSPA Act) and the Land Remote Sensing Policy Act of 1992, form the backbone of the national Remote Sensing Policy. The policies are further administered by the Office of Space Commercialization, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA’s) Advisory Committee on Commercial Remote Sensing (ACCRES), the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA), and other Federal civil agencies. The President’s 2010 National Space Policy directive further provides a “comprehensive guidance for all government activities in space, including the commercial, civil, and national security space sectors”.

Remote Sensing Policies across the world

The United States has a comprehensive legal and policy framework that administers Remote Sensing and commercial imagery. Canada’s Remote Sensing Space Systems Act, 2005, closely follows the U.S. framework for communication, processing or storage of satellite raw data. Germany brought into force the National Data Security Policy for Space-Based Earth Remote Sensing Systems in 2007, “to safeguard the security and foreign policy interests of the Federal Republic of Germany in connection with the distribution and commercial marketing of satellite-acquired earth remote sensing data especially on international markets”.

However, the trend for most nations is not to have formal laws but overall national policies like the National Remote Sensing Data Policy (2011) of India or that of Japan.

Most of the current national legislations and policies provide for Government-authorized mechanisms to control access to imagery and resolutions permissible. The commercial high-resolution remote sensing and imagery sector is becoming more institutionalized to meet national security concerns. This is reflected in the changing data distribution policies. While remote sensing and satellite imagery policies differ for nation, the general principles and practices are similar for active space nations. As the Global Survey prepared by The National Center for Remote Sensing, Air, and Space Law summarizes, the “National space law is on the rise, catalyzed in large part by the practical issues raised by commercial remote sensing activities”.

2b. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UASs)

Figure (v) Aerial photograph of a property used for real estate sales, (Swarm AUV)
Figure (v) Aerial photograph of a property used for real estate sales, (Swarm AUV)

The most controversial and much debated geospatial technology is the UAV (or drone), a sensor device flown at low heights for capture of images. Applications are no longer confined to military operations and disaster response. They have spilled over to operations like pizza delivery and very often personal or commercial gains. And unlike the satellite or manned aircraft, the UAV is a largely unregulated sector. Moreover, the UAV has the potential for damage to property and individuals. Other concerns are infringement upon privacy of private citizens, ownership of data collected and security of the nation. Yet, legislators and regulators around the world have been so far been unable to put any effective mechanism in place to regulate the proliferate use of drones.

Commercial uses of UAVs are becoming extensive across media, land survey, real estate, agriculture, and freight transportation. So issues of licensing, location privacy, image capture and how such information is used are critical factors calling for spatial policies and regulation. Although industry initiatives like the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Systems Association are working with regulators, further policies are called for to standardize the drone industry and avert litigations.

Today, the UAV is employed for personal, industrial, defense, media and first response use. Sony Corporation has just entered the market in a big way and sUAVs are easily accessible and affordable through ecommerce websites. Of relevance is whether a UAV mission is authorized, the permissible height of operation, demarcation of ‘no fly’ zones, period of storage and use of data captured, rules of conduct and pilot license. Although FAA regulations monitor safety issues, they do not look into the safe and ethical usage of drones, or recreational use. Law and policy must develop to allow for societal and security controls. Issues of who can use the UAV, what data or images can be collected or how the information is shared, need to be addressed and controlled.

UAV and drone regulations across the world

In the U.S., the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has been developing regulations for UAVs in the civilian space. In 2014, the FAA granted exemptions under Section 333 to encourage effective commercial applications. The Small UAS Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) examines “safety rules for small UAS (under 55 pounds) conducting non-recreational operations”.

Many States have passed laws restricting data collection and usage by UAVs, by government agencies or private individuals. Other laws looking into the regulation of UAVs are the Drone Aircraft Privacy and Transparency Act of 2013, Preserving Freedom from Unwarranted Surveillance Act of 2013, Preserving American Privacy Act of 2015 and the Farmers Privacy Act of 2012.

In Europe, where privacy of citizens is a prime concern, UAV operators are required to comply with data protection laws. In the U.K., article 167 of the Air Navigation Order 2009 bans anyone from flying small, unmanned surveillance craft within 50 meters of a structure not owned by them, or flying within 150 meters of any congested areas, besides not permitted to fly too close to buildings and airports. With sales of drones over last Christmas up 24 per cent, and a drone flying near Heathrow almost crashing into a passenger jet in July, Britain is taking the regulation of UAVs seriously.

Australia is the first country to introduce licensing (2002) for commercial drone operators and regulations for recreational or commercial use. Drone operation is governed by the Australian Civil Aviation and Safety Authority (CASA).  Countries like India and Spain, have banned commercial drones altogether, and are waking up to the idea of devising a comprehensive policy on civil use of UAVs and UASs.

Case Studies: Risks to aircrafts and the passengers aboard from unmanned aerial vehicles are frequently reported. In the U.S., the FAA regulations declare ‘no fly zones’ above 500 feet or within five miles of an airport. However, two incidents in August reported how drones came within 100 feet of airplanes flying at an altitude of about 800 to 900 feet, near the busy Kennedy International Airport. Ten days later, SkyLife One helicopter missed being hit by a drone by 20 feet. On its way to the Community Regional Medical Center with a patient, it was flying at 1,000 feet in the air. A week later, firefighters were hindered in their operations during a wildfire that roared onto a Los Angeles freeway. Twenty crucial minutes were lost as five such UAS taking close-up videos of the disaster impeded fire-fighting helicopters.

A May 6th incident in the U.K. caused a security scare after a tourist flew a 3 ft long drone close to Windsor Castle, on a day when the Queen was in residence. Intelligence reports in India have been reporting in continuum drone aided terrorist attacks over the past year.

With billions of dollars being spent on national security, stricter regulations and penalties are called for to avert not only major airline disasters but also possible terrorist attacks.

2c. GPS and other location based technologies

As the world moves towards technology integration, issues surrounding location tracking and data are becoming obscure and outdated. In the United States, the Geolocation Privacy and Surveillance Act (GPS Act) introduced in 2011, aims to limit government surveillance using geolocation information. The legal framework was extended to give “commercial entities and private citizens clear guidelines for when and how geolocation information can be accessed and used”.

However, with the proliferation of location based technologies like mobile phones, GPS devices, location based tracking devices, connected cares, consumer wearables with GPS and geotagging; regulation of location based technologies have become equivocal. Although by law, it is required that location information be permission based, in reality installation of the LBS (Location Based Service) application comes together with the user opt-in for allowing device location. In their existing framework such laws are in reality self-defeating.

2d. WMS – Web Mapping Service

The WMS platform displays maps of spatially referenced data using standards from the Open GIS Consortium. It is a powerful visualization tool that supports creation of distributed map servers for building customized maps. Web based WMS clients include the ArcGIS, AutoCAD and MapInfo amongst others. Spatial Policies also govern responsible mapping and georeferencing practices that adhere to the Open GIS Standards.

Geospatial operational policies and standards currently facilitate the development, sharing and use of geospatial data. These standards address both administrative and legal issues relevant to data access, quality, ownership and integrity.

Google Maps feature international borders differently around the world, to ensure compliance with geopolitics driven laws. Arunachal Pradesh, one of India’s 29 states, is viewed correctly from India, but appears as ‘South Tibet’ under Chinese control when viewed from China. Viewed from UK both borders are marked with a dotted line to indicate dispute. An example of territorial aggression driven WMS policies!

2e. GIS in the Cloud

Cloud computing poses legal challenges of privacy and security of spatial data stored in the cloud. The private cloud is clearly defined by individual vendor contracts and laws of the country where the host company is located. The public cloud however is steered by crowdsourced or VGI (Volunteered Geographic Information) and company initiatives. This calls for responsible standardized integration of geo-referenced services and critical geographic information.

<– Previous: Spatial Law and its Relevance to Geospatial Practitioners

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