Spatial Law and Geospatial Applications

Sangeeta Deogawanka


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

Geospatial technology is empowering society and governance in unprecedented ways. The application scenarios are as relevant to the security of a nation as to that of a citizen. At the same time, the broader cultural impact is an equally important concern. The most significant legal implications relate to the data captured, used or shared. Whether spatial data is captured for purpose of ecommerce analytics, national security or first response, every application scenario requires separate consideration and legal provision.

3a. Purpose of Data or Application scenario

A particular geospatial technology can be used to collect data for different purposes. For instance, imagery data of different spatial, spectral and temporal resolutions may be deployed for mapping and monitoring vegetation cover or developing crop assessment models. Likewise, imagery may be used to detect intrusion of neighborhood countries where there is a border dispute. UAVs are used to facilitate disaster response operations. Drones are also used bot in the military and civil space, as much as they are used for making fun videos. It is evident that Spatial Laws cannot be uniform for all such diverse applications. The purpose for which spatial or location data is being captured determines policies and regulations. For instance, the permissible timeline of data storage, usage and sharing, would depend upon the purpose of data capture. The core legalities of intellectual property rights, licensing, contracts and privacy policies are also determined by the purpose of spatial data capture. Concurrently, the type of party (military, government, business or community) exercising data capture or collection is considered for defining the scope of spatial regulations.

3b. Data capture

Geospatial practitioners are increasingly coming under the lens of governments for unethical and unlawful spatial data collection practices. Recently, the European Union served Google a notice, voicing concerns about its data gathering practices.

With applications using geospatial data on the rise, policies and guidelines are being introduced. As a geospatial practitioner, there is need to understand the rights with respect to spatial data capture. Areas of awareness and compliance include Government laws and regulations related to national security and export controls, federal or local restrictions, and privacy laws. This in turn supports development of best practices, identification of potential liabilities, and allocation of risks through indemnifications and agreements.

3c. Data usage

As data capture using the UAV, GPS and location-based consumer application increases, so does concerns with respect to privacy, ethics and national security. Companies collecting, using or distributing spatial data need to understand and comply with collection and use of spatial information.

The increase in commercial use of spatial data has often resulted in legal disputes over use and practice norms. Businesses and geospatial practitioners can reduce the risk of litigation by observing the spatial policy regulations in place and providing for legal claims that may arise. Ultimately, it is the role of the governments and federal authorities to put into place effective regulations to ensure protection of the rights of private citizens, properties and businesses.

While Europe, Australia, and Canada have been actively tackling data protection, there is a lag in most other countries. In the absence of concrete guidelines, the legal industry itself has taken to self governance. Initiatives like Centre for Information Policy Leadership and Cloud Security Alliance are paving the way towards a regulatory framework of how location or geographic data collected is used.

Companies like Uber and other location apps collect location information with their always-on functionality, giving rise to concern. When location data is leveraged for geo-targeting ads and foreseeing consumer needs, it is considered acceptable. But an always on location permission allows collection of other data, like raw accelerometer and gyroscope streams which combined with personally identifiable information (PII) and raw sensor data.

Waze, the Google traffic application, is a popular app with motorists, but not with the police community who feel showing up location of police cars could aid criminals plan their moves.

Spatial Law 6

3d. Data sharing

Convergence of technologies and seamless applications has given rise to the data-as-a-service sector, where data is shared across platforms, businesses and in the public cloud. Spatial data sharing including location information has become a common practice, with a near-legitimacy tag with businesses. Connected cars, store sensors, mobile location data, Foursquare and Facebook messenger apps, collect and share spatial data in a Big Data landscape. Instances like the Uber cab-booking service sharing user rides data of ZCTA (Zip Code Tabulation Area) with Boston city planners may just be the tip of an iceberg. In the absence of effective policies, consumers and advocacy groups have undertaken the watchdog role. Legal firms have also undertaken an active role as spatial data sharing and distribution becomes increasingly complex.


Gabrynowicz, Joanne Irene; The Land Remote Sensing Laws and Policies of National Governments: A Global Survey; The National Center for Remote Sensing, Air, and Space Law at the University of Mississippi School of Law, 2007 [Web]

Ito, Atsuyo; Legal Aspects of Satellite Remote Sensing, Brill Publishers [2011]

Slonecker, E. Terrence; Shaw, Denice M.; Lillesand Thomas; M. Emerging Legal and Ethical Issues in Advanced Remote Sensing Technology, Photogrammetric Engineering & Remote Sensing, 64:6, June 1998 [Web]


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Sangeeta Deogawanka

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