Monday, December 31, 2018

Spatial Law and Policy - Highlights of 2018

Each year I try to summarize what I believe are the major spatial law and policy stories over the past 12 months. I try to focus on issues that cut across both legal and policy disciplines as well as technology domains. I try not to just focus on those that get the most media attention, but also issues that I think represent broader trends of where spatial law and policy is headed.

(As I mentioned recently on Twitter, in preparing the 2018 review, I came across the 2010 review in this post. It is worth a quick read, even if just to see how much as changed, and how much has remained the same.)


Privacy issues associated with geospatial  information continued to be a big topic in 2018.  For example, in January, there was a report that geolocation information from users of the Strava fitness app that was made publicly available could be used to follow the movements of US  military personnel at facilities that were supposed to be secret.
Due in part to the backlash from these reports, Strava announced that it was changing its data handling practices.  However, in doing so, are they limiting the value of geospatial information for such uses valuable use described below? And if so, do lawmakers understand geospatial technology well enough to balance it perceived risks versus its potential benefits? 
Location privacy associated with data collected from mobile devices also received a great deal of attention. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Carpenter v. United States that law enforcement needed to obtain a warrant in order to obtain historical cell phone location data.

Also, this year, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) came into effect. Most are aware of the impact that GDPR has had on data protection and privacy across the globe. However, the GDPR is particularly notable for the geospatial community as "location data" is included in the definition of personal data. Similarly. the California Consumer Protection Act, which passed in 2018 and will become effective in 2020 includes "geolocation data" as personal information. You can expect more of this type of legislation as stories such as this one from the New York Times are published.

Two other developments of note. In Naperville Smart Meter Awareness v. City of Naperville, the court found that a public utility's collection of data from smart meters was an invasion of privacy as the data reveals "information about the happenings inside of a home". And in Canada, noted privacy expert Ann Cavoukian resigned from Toronto's smart city program due to her concerns over data privacy.

Geospatial Information Management

I was pleased to work with UN-GGIM in establishing the Working Group on Legal and Policy for Geospatial Information Management.  The Working Group held its first meeting in January of this year.  One of the Working Group's first acts was to approve the Compendium on the Licensing of Geospatial Information.

Several nations took important measures that could impact geospatial information management in 2018. The United States passed the Geospatial Data Act of 2018. The Act codified many of the existing geospatial information management practices of OMB Circular A-16 and related guidance. However, it also makes some changes, including greater Congressional oversight. Time will tell as to what impact it will have on the geospatial community in the U.S. Also, Singapore, in my opinion one of the leaders in geospatial information management, entered into an MOU with the World Bank to promote greater use of geospatial information for sustainable urban development.

In the United Kingdom . . .
 National Security

National security (and associated) concerns associated with geospatial technology continued in 2018. These concerns varied depending upon the technology . . .
 . . . the type of information . . .
. . . and the solution.

Open Data

Open Data has been a big issue in spatial law and policy for the past several years. While, the global trend is for making more government data "open", there was some push back in 2018. Perhaps the biggest example of this was a report that US government was considering charging for Landsat data.  Such a measure would be a fundamental change in US policy and would impact a number of  user in government, academy, research, and private industry.

Intellectual Property Rights in Geospatial Information

I continue to believe that intellectual property issues associated with geospatial information will become an important issue, given the complexity of the issues involved and the uncertainty associated with some aspects of the law. One example of what we might see in the future is an effort to give intellectual property protection to data collected from autonomous vehicles. Thankfully, an important case in this field was resolved in 2018.


Governments around the world continue to struggle with how to balance the potential of drones with the perceived risks.  In the United States, the Uniform Law Commission, a respected organization that provides draft legislation for states in an effort to promote uniformity, came out in support of giving states greater rights to regulate drone activities. This would be in significant change to the current legal regime in which the Federal Aviation Administration is responsible for the national airspace. Until this issue is definitely resolved, we can expect more of this.

In the United Kingdom, government authorities are struggling to address the aftermath of the incident in December that shutdown Gatewick airport during the busy holiday season. The complexity of these issues explain why the African Union and the New Partnership for Africa's Development highlighted in its report, Drones Under the Horizon: Transforming Africa’s Agriculture, the importance of a legal and policy framework. The report states "UAV regulations are still in its infancy in Africa, the making and the presence of too restrictive, or even disabling regulations governing the import and use of UAVs can hinder the development of a very promising industry."


Advancements in satellite and sensor technology are also driving spatial law and policy.
In June, the U.S. published a notice of proposed rulemaking to change regulations for obtaining a license to operate a commercial remote sensing satellite. The proposed rules are intended to make it easier to obtain a license so as to make the U.S. more competitive in earth observation. It is also intended to help avoid edge cases such as those that arose in connection with a Space X launch in March.

Please let me know if you think I missed any stories.


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