Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Spatial Law and Policy Update (April 29, 2010)

National Security

According to this press report, Saudi Arabia has formed a team of government officials to monitor Google Earth to make sure that there no sensitive military or intelligence facilities visible.


I will try to find out more about this case involving a woman who has brought a claim against a vehicle tracking company for allowing her husband to track her even though she claims the company was aware he was abusing her.

The Supreme Court recently hear oral arguments in the case City of Ontario v. Quon, a case in which the main issue is the expectation of privacy that an employee can have in text messages on their employer-provided devices. The case is interesting from a spatial law standpoint both because it will address what is reasonable with regards to the introduction of new technology and because some are openly questioning the ability of at least certain members of the Supreme Court to understand technology in a way that is necessary for them to be making such important decisions.

The alleged improper use of security cameras on student computers in a school district in Pennsylvania was discussed in an earlier post. However it is worth revisiting based upon some new information suggesting the school took over 50,000 images of students and their homes from students' computers. It highlights the need for all businesses to understand that there is a chance - perhaps a very good chance - than their employees will improperly use any tracking system that they implement.


I am hopeful that some of the readers of the Spatial Law and Policy blog are lawyers who are interested in the issues but are still learning about the technology. Therefore, I plan on periodically including links that I think do a good job of explaining the power and the promise of spatial technology. I found this to be a good description of how location data is collected.

Intellectual Property

I find it a little ironic that the folks at OpenStreetMap claim that their intellectual property rights have been violated . . . but they do have a point.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Why "Sharing" Government Spatial Data Is Not As Easy As It Sounds.

I really enjoyed this talk by Tim Berners-Lee - and encourage you to listen to it when you have some time. He is a unique man with an incredible vision. In the talk, he mentions the value of linked data. He describes how easy it is from a technological standpoint to link data. One of the points that he makes is the value of raw data. He is particularly interested in having government agencies making raw data available to the public. (In fact he leads the audience in a chant of "Raw Data Now"). He states that raw data can be a valuable resource to businesses, citizens and other government agencies.

I agree with Berners-Lee that raw data is increasingly valuable. (And made more so when it is linked to other data). And I agree with his statement that government organizations are a great resource for this data but are generally reluctant to share. Frequently, the issue has to do with money. Agencies are reluctant to share their data because they want to at least recover the costs associated with collecting and maintaining the data.

However, even if money is not an issue, I believe that there are a number of legitimate legal (and policy) concerns that government agencies must deal with when sharing data . . . and these are not often not appreciated. For example, whether the agency will be held responsible if there are errors in the data or if the data is improperly used. Or what privacy concerns will be raised by sharing the data. Unfortunately, the law in this area is frequently uncertain or outdated given today's technology.

These concerns become even greater when spatial data is involved, because (i) the technology supporting its use is still relatively new, so many questions are just now being asked - for example, what is a reasonable expectation of privacy with respect our location data, (ii) spatial data sets are so versatile that they can be used for a number of different applications, even if they are not intended - or suitable - for such use and (iii) spatial data has historically been associated with military and intelligence matters - which raises many national security concerns.

Therefore, the challenge is to develop a legal and policy framework that is robust enough to address these legitimate concerns while flexible enough to permit the level and quality of data sharing and linked data that Berners-Lee describes in the video. (I frequently describe this as "getting your lawyer to yes".) The question is, can it be done?

Monday, April 12, 2010

A humorous take on Germany's concerns with Google Street View

Apple's Answer to Location Privacy

In a class I teach on Spatial Law and Policy, I often - too often I suspect the students' would say - ask, which of the following is best to solve a particular legal/policy issue: the courts, legislation, the marketplace or industry? With that in mind, I read with interest Apple's attempt to apply a technological solution to a location privacy issue. Specifically, according to the New York Times article, "[t]o make it clearer just how often approved apps are collecting data about users’ physical whereabouts, Apple will display an arrow in the status bar at the top of the screen, right next to the battery-life indicator, whenever a user’s location is being tracked."

Something as simple as an arrow displayed on a status bar will not address all the privacy concerns associated with location-based services and applications. However, it does show the value of the technology and legal communities working together to identify practical solutions. Hopefully, this trend will continue with respect to spatial law and policy issues.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Monitoring Arms Control Treaties: How Much Has Changed?

The nuclear arms control treaty signed by President's Obama and Medvedev today brought back memories of my time as a satellite imagery analyst for the U.S. government in the mid-to-late 1980's. My work at that time was focused on arms control issues, particularly developing satellite imagery collection strategies that could be used to help monitor Soviet compliance with the INF and START treaties.

As I was reading about the signing ceremony in Prague, I was struck by how much has changed in geospatial technology in general and the remote sensing industry in particular since those two treaties were signed. Which made me wonder how much of this new and improved technology is being incorporated into the monitoring regimes? For example, if I was in that position today, I would taking a hard look at how to incorporate the growing number of commercial remote sensing satellites into the monitoring mix. Hopefully, existing government policy towards these systems facilitates such access.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Spatial Law and the Smart Grid

According to its supporters -and there are many - the smart grid has the potential to address both energy conservation and climate change However, as discussed in this article, it requires companies to collect and make available to consumers a vast amount of information on their energy use, particularly within their homes. A number of organizations, such as the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), have expressed concerns over consumer privacy, as companies will have detailed information about their customers and their daily lives within their homes.

Utilities have a long history with collecting and using spatial data for such activities as asset tracking and inventory. However, as the smart grid moves forward, the legal and policy issues they will face with respect to spatial data is likely to be much more challenging and complex.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Spatial Law and Policy Update (April 2, 2010)

Law Enforcement

A couple of interesting news items regarding the role of spatial technology in law enforcement. First, a deputy in Florida used Google Earth to help track down someone who had violated dumping laws. In another case, an Ohio man reportedly is trying to use information from his GPS-enabled mobile phone to show that he had not been speeding.


Another effort to conform federal privacy laws with today's technology - this time it is the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). COPPA requires Web site operators or online service providers aimed at children under 13 years of age to get parental permission before collecting or using personal information from children. Note the reference to "mobile geo-location data" in the article. Such efforts will undoubtedly continue as social network sites continue to integrate location into their applications.

This article, which references an article in Science magazine, is helpful in explaining location data is so valuable.

Apparently, Finland is the latest country to express concerns about Google Street View. I thought about this article when I read this post that references Michael Jones' remarks about the 500 billion images on-line that are not blurred!

Data Quality

This story is an excellent example of what can happen when people try to use geospatial data when they don't fully understand geospatial technology or its limitations.

Public sector information (PSI)/Licensing

Yesterday the Ordnance Survey began making many of its spatial data assets available for free and with limited re-use restrictions. The assets were released under this license, which is very similar to a Creative Commons Attribution License. I have some thoughts about the use of Creative Commons licenses for spatial data sets, which I will share at some other time. However, I would be interested in your thoughts on this particular license as it relates to OS - or spatially enabled PSI data in general. When you comment, please let me know what country you are from, and whether you see yourself more as a data provider or a data user.