Evidence from Earth Observation Satellites: Emerging Legal Issues, vol. 7

  • Published

Evidence from Earth Observation Satellites: Emerging Legal Issues, vol. 7, Studies in Space Law, edited by Ray Purdy and Denise Leung. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 2012, 466 pp.

Former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden claims he released classified information to highlight his concerns with purported government invasions of privacy for the average American. Whether one considers him a hero or a traitor, the issue of personal privacy is important any time a government gathers information on its citizens. The contributors to Evidence from Earth Observation Satellites address issues of privacy, data handling, admissibility, and reliability related to the gathering and use of data from earth observation (EO) satellites as evidence within the legal sector. To accomplish the task, the editors gather a number of national and international experts in the field of law and policy regarding space and remote sensing (a term synonymous with EO in the space law community). The book’s six parts provide a layperson’s description of the technological issues related to using EO data as evidence, national and international efforts to utilize it to support prosecutions, and privacy and policy concerns. It concludes that making use of such data as evidence is immature and that national governments and international institutions should carefully consider the proper national and international policy changes required to develop effective law and legal practices ahead of advances in EO technology.

The text effectively frames the discussion within the limits of current technology and policy, identifying the key unresolved and ambiguous issues related to the use of EO data as evidence at the national and international levels. It also offers an excellent treatment of technological issues related to maintaining the validity and admissibility of evidence when the data is in a digital format, is processed and potentially manipulated, and exists only as a copy of the original.

The book’s parts and, occasionally, individual chapters are disjointed, lacking clear connections. Fortunately, Purdy closes the book with a chapter that fulfills the promise of its title “Pulling the Threads Together and Moving Forward.” He summarizes the major issues raised throughout and proposes a way ahead to resolve them.

The fact that environmental law dominates much of the book may cause some military professionals to balk at a claim of relevancy. However, Evidence from Earth Observation Satellites offers two discussions that make it important for Airmen working in national security and intelligence policy as well as for those in the legal profession. The first is found in chapter nine, regarding the use of EO data in the International Criminal Court to assist in cases such as the prosecution of war crimes in the former Yugoslavia. As the availability and employment of such information in criminal proceedings grow, the likelihood that judge advocates or Air Force leaders could find themselves involved in cases for the prosecution or defense increases. Therefore, understanding the challenges of presenting EO data in court and the potential pitfalls related to ensuring its admissibility may become more important.

The second important discussion concerns privacy laws. In the final chapter, Purdy adds to the examination of personal privacy related to the collection of EO data and rightly identifies a gap in international policy and its complicating effect as EO technology improves and proliferates. What constitutes a violation of privacy by EO satellites? According to the authors, no standard exists. As highlighted in the Snowden case, terrorism often resides at the border between military and law enforcement jurisdictions. During conflict with the conventional army of another nation, little legal ambiguity exists. In a struggle against an international terrorist organization, both inside and outside our own borders, the line between what is justified to ensure national security and what meets legal standards often blurs. The book’s contributors indirectly open the discussion on privacy as it relates to EO satellites—one that might influence both the Air Force’s collection of information on known and potential terrorist adversaries and national choices on whether to pursue the same through legal or military instruments.

Written for members of the legal profession and focused on space law, the book’s commentary can be difficult to endure at times. However, the discussions about the contribution to prosecutions of war crimes and issues of privacy related to EO data could make Evidence from Earth Observation Satellites significant for national security policy, intelligence policy, and legal professionals within the Air Force.

Lt Col Michael J. Martindale, USAF

US Air Force Academy

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."