DOI: 10.5553/IISL/2020063003005

International Institute of Space LawAccess_open


Sovereign Privacy and the Evolution of Earth Observation Technology

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    In 1986 the UN General Assembly adopted the Remote Sensing Principles, a set of voluntary guidelines aimed to govern a newly established field of space activities. In the discussions that preceded the adoption of the Principles, States expressed their concerns about the new technology that enabled the continuous observation of the Earth from outer space. The concern that Earth observation would provide unfair advantage to the few States that were able to procure remote sensing satellites, combined with an effort to secure their corresponding national interests, prompted States to agree to conduct remote sensing activities on the basis of “respect for the principle of full and permanent sovereignty of all States over their wealth and resources and with regard to the rights and interests of other States and entities under their jurisdiction”. This paper will examine how the principle of respect to State sovereignty functions in light of the advancements in Earth observation applications, namely the improving resolution of satellite imagery, the capabilities of high-throughput satellites to store and disseminate data, as well as the growing convergence of space technology in non-space applications. In particular, it will examine the extent to which countries can exercise their sovereign right over information regarding territories under their jurisdiction, when this information is gathered by satellites. To this end, it will focus on the concept of sovereignty as it was formulated in the UN Remote Sensing Principles, by comparison to equivalent regimes for monitoring from the air and from the sea. Whereas space law establishes the freedom of exploration and use of outer space, an area outside the sovereignty of any State, air law, law of the sea and other fields of international law limit the freedom of conduct of other States within the territory under a State’s jurisdiction without that State’s explicit permission. The paper will also assess the benefits and drawbacks of the rapid development of Earth observation technology and the effects of the regulatory limitations in this regard. Ultimately, it will support that the current legal regime should not be interpreted as hindering the evolution of remote sensing, but as encouraging the identification and overcoming of the rising challenges, in order to enhance the benefits from Earth observation technology and its applications.

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