Law, College of


Date of this Version



Chapter 10 in Evidence from Earth Observation Satellites: Emerging Legal Issues, Denise Leung and Ray Purdy (editors), Leiden: Brill, 2013, pp. 243–258.


Copyright © 2013 Koninklijke Brill NV. Used by permission.


When the space law era was ushered in during the late 1950s, it was already clear to some observers that, sooner or later, life on Earth would be monitored from a distance without those living on it necessarily knowing about it—Big Brother in optima forma.

At the same time, with space activities primarily being undertaken by the two superpowers and their acolytes for military/strategic/political purposes (and secondarily for scientific ones), such concerns largely focused on spying in the context of the Cold War. Satellites clearly were excellent tools for finding the whereabouts of the opponent’s tanks, troops, aircraft, warships, and (perhaps) missiles. By extension, satellites could monitor compliance with international agreements, and try to curb the arms race and/or the potential evolvement thereof into real war.

Obviously, any such satellite data were kept highly secret by the few governments involved in generating them, which meant that details on individual persons or companies revealed by such data were not accessible to anyone outside of an inner circle of security experts. Even the extent to which satellite data were able to generate relevant details was, at least officially, a secret. Rumors consequently abounded that military remote sensing capabilities would actually allow for the reading of car license plates from space.

This situation started to fundamentally change only when satellite data of very high resolution became widely accessible, as a consequence of both the waning of the Cold War and the increased interest and entry of private enterprise in outer space. The resolution of such very high resolution (VHR) data freely available on the commercial markets has recently dipped below the 0.5 m mark, and continues to evolve “downwards.”

By these tokens, it is clear that satellite data may already interfere, in a number of instances, with issues normally considered under the heading of “privacy.” This is even truer since the concept is no longer confined to human individuals, but may also apply to legal persons such as companies. “Privacy” here is taken very broadly to mean personal autonomy and (physical and psychological) integrity, including relevant physical and social identity. Any intrusion in the personal domain, whether actual and physical, or virtual and psychological, would consequently, in principle, interfere with such a concept.

The current contribution tries to analyze what international space law, as it stands today, might already provide in terms of relevant rules, rights, and obligations, or at least legal principles, pertinent to issues of privacy. These issues will, sooner or later, arise in a more down-to-Earth context.