Viewpoint: We need ground rules for geo-information

GPS satellites over Earth
Image caption View from above: Mr Rees and Prof Madders are calling for a Geo-information Convention

Most people realise that technology shapes our lives, but few appreciate how much it shapes our laws.

Consider the flint that Stone Age man fashioned.

He could hardly have imagined, as he was using it to light a fire or hack a carcass apart, that his descendants would one day promote that kind of inventive step through patents.

So it is with the wonder of our age, the computer.

We've scarcely started to grasp the scale of the changes information technology will bring this century.

One application is to help analyse, map and collate features of our surroundings across the planet and keep track of activity on it. This geo-information has tremendous benefits and is gaining in sophistication and power all the time.

Data sources to produce geo-information come from satellites, together with aerial and ground observation equipment around the world.

They collect data from different parts of the electromagnetic spectrum or from probing with radar or with sonar in air or water. Their output can then be processed into multiple formats, depending on ultimate use, including images with layers of content added.

The scale of the phenomenon and the quantities of data involved are barely imaginable, but the effect is for humanity to be endowed with new senses that can reach to the Earth's farthest corners.

How this will affect our behaviour as individuals and societies will be one of the biggest questions of the Information Age.

In November 2012, Britain experienced unusually severe autumn flooding.

Only a few years ago it would have overwhelmed the emergency services, but thanks in part to satellite imagery, situation managers gained a strategic view of areas at risk and could deploy resources effectively.

Quality warnings

Yet, even with this kind of application of general public benefit, there are issues of access to data and the reliability of the resultant information as it is processed into services for users.

But when geo-information supports surveillance of human activities, there is a point at which particular interests are going to be affected.

While we may appreciate the sat-nav in our car or phone when it delivers us safely to some remote location we want to get to, we may find that a geo-location application known to the provider not to be very reliable for the purpose offered ought at least to carry a clear "quality" warning, similar to safety and health warnings for other things we use.

That way, possibly widespread inconvenience, even disruption, might be avoided.

Other, more disturbing questions arise when details of our daily commute are, to mention a recent example in the Netherlands, used to set speed traps without us being informed in some way of this potential use.

Image caption Any new limits on geo-information use must be made future-proof

Similar issues can arise with surveillance from the sky of cars' movements in and out of particular locations at particular times.

Those watched - individuals and organisations - may wish to have some possibility of knowing who's watching, allowing for state's legitimate security needs.

Again here, geo-information seems to have two faces, depending on whose interest it serves.

But when the information processing for such applications is dispersed around the globe, how can issues like these be addressed?

Regulating beyond boundaries

It is the law's function to establish the rules which apply at this kind of intersection of technology and human interests.

Since the issues are transnational, we've proposed the development of an international Geo-information Convention.

Its aim is to be technology-neutral, so that it is future-proof enough also to cover new systems like hyper spectral sensors reminiscent of Star Trek and drones with privacy implications reminiscent of 1984.

The essential questions are: how do we make geoinformation reliable enough for the particular applications for which it is to be used, and what limits should we put on use of its power?

Work on these difficult questions has already begun through the International Bar Association (IBA).

Having already received encouragement from several quarters, we believe it's now time for the project to be opened up for wider international discussion.

A roundtable on the Convention will be held at an IBA conference in Zurich in May 2013 and from there, we hope to move towards governmental take-up of the Convention.

Christopher Rees is a partner at London-based law firm Taylor Wessing. Kevin Madders is a visiting professor at King's College London, and a managing partner at Systemics Network International.