Will data “mining” from space open a Pandora’s box over information sourcing?

I recently read a couple of thoughtful articles about asteroid mining in space and the potential conflicts that might arise and create headwinds for the still-nascent industry. The discussion seemed appropriate given the public’s renewed interest in space exploration programs and the celebrated successful return of the SpaceX probe, a feat that has probably had the most viral impact in putting space issues back on the traditional and social media map.

What most caught my attention in these stories were the questions raised about land use rights. They were strikingly similar to those that spark debate — and have frequently driven past discussions — around other natural resources, be they Federal grazing lands, Antarctica (where a long-standing treaty governing rights was actually reached), or more generally, the world’s oceans (where the Law of the Sea, which sets some parameters for offshore drilling, fishing, and other extraction rights, still does not include the U.S. as a signed party).

However, it’s not just asteroid mining that is likely to become a contentious “final frontier” issue in the near future, but also data mining. The “extraction” of not just physical things, but also digital information, raises similar, and just as important, questions about usage rights and governance (or more fittingly, “law and order”) in outer space. And as an extreme case of data gathering — one with a clean legal and ethical slate — it may serve as a useful test case for how other types of data sourcing should be handled.

Data mining in space is already underway and becoming a big business. Using tiny, low cost, low orbiting satellites, companies such as Planet Labs, Skybox, and others have significantly improved the quality of space-based data collecting and an extremely affordable rate. They are able to take highly detailed pictures of the Earth every day and continue to launch and put in place more of these imaging systems. The images taken are used in a range of applications: for example, assessing crop health, monitoring energy infrastructure, gathering competitive intelligence, and even tracking migration and conflict. And, of course, all of these functions have corollary applications related to financial investing, insurance, and national security.

Cool, yes? And certainly these systems are poised to create a lot of value. But as multiple companies from multiple countries race to have the most up-to-date coverage, one has to ask whether space is a first-come, first-served territory like the old Wild West. Is this Dodge, or Tombstone, or the California Hills circa 1849? Or are these claims in space too broadly impactful to be considered localized issues for the parties themselves to figure out?

Answering this at a high level will help us address some other more specific questions. For instance:

  • Who should have the rights to this “natural resource” of information and on what terms?
  • Is this ultimately a public utility?
  • Is there some form of sovereignty that can be claimed to even provide an appropriate governance structure?
  • At the individual level, should someone have the right to “opt out,” like the right to be forgotten rules of the EU?

Even though space is, in theory, vast, there has to be a more limited set of optimal orbits and paths that these kind of collection devices will want to take. Collisions are inevitable and therefore conflicts will need to be resolved based on a set of governing principles.

Just to be clear, I think the leaders of firms like Planet Labs are well intentioned. However, last I checked, they were still revising their code of ethics, which they expected to publish “very soon.” How the apparent leader in deploying imaging satellites defines its ethical stance could go a long way in creating a proper set of industry standards of practice.

We don’t have to wait for space to be even more crowded with competing satellites for this discussion to happen. I think the core questions about rights to data are worth contemplating as we also ponder similar, but more subtle, earthbound examples of novel data sourcing. For instance, the debate about drones and the information they capture should provide some early signs about whether the argument that says, “If you can create the technology to do something, it’s both ethically and legally okay to do it” will hold, even though in theory we have a bit more clarity about air space rights closer to the ground.

Companies that plan to invest in these new data collection mechanisms and policy makers who have responsibility for oversight need to be thinking ahead about governance and access, and how to strike a balance between overly blunt regulation — which could stifle the ability to solve some important social problems (like tracking climate change impacts) or limit economic growth (through the new businesses created from the data) — and a pure free-for-all that may could lead to misuse and catastrophic damage if not bounded in some fashion.

There will be lots of uncertainty to navigate and factor into any planning assumptions. A good start toward resolving some of these issues would be for the industry leaders to at least get their initial code of ethics published as soon as possible.

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