Space Big Data: Big data troubles in the final frontier Dubai, UAE - Picture Credit: Earth-i

Space Big Data: Big data troubles in the final frontier

The increasing number of satellites launched and the rapid growth in the field of space data uses and applications, add another “big” dimension to the world of big data. At the same time, the associated legal challenges begin to surface.

The term space big data is used to describe large amounts of data generated through or distributed by means of space technology. The most prominent examples are Earth observation images and remote sensing pictures, but the term encompasses a much wider set of data, such as any information gathered or transmitted by satellite connectivity. Among the most common uses of space data, particularly remote sensing, are the monitoring of environmental changes and infrastructure planning. However, the recent development in satellite technology and the rapid developments in space data applications, have introduced a greater variety of uses and users.

The exponential growth in the amount of data produced and disseminated consequently creates multiple legal challenges. The most prominent one is related to data privacy and protection. Concerning the former, the rapid cross-border data dissemination does not allow for a specific compliance regime to apply. As for the latter, the variety of data available, especially when combined, can result in very accurate results from seemingly unconnected pieces of information. At the same time, given the speed of transmission and the different applications, identifying the intermediary or final users is nearly impossible. Satellite signals, for example, are transmitted within fractions of seconds among multiple satellites in orbit, ground stations, databases, and all sorts of electronic devices. What is more, the issue of cybersecurity lately also appears to be alarming satellite operators. Satellite and ground stations alike contain large datasets that could potentially be exposed to external risks. In addition, intellectual property rights become redundant, since it is not feasible to track the creator of the protected property or the ways in which it is distribution. Finally, the defence nature and the military character of space activities are also relevant. Most satellites that produce or transmit data are of dual-use, while the space technology and the data associated with it is usually limited by export control restrictions.

On the one hand, securing a clear and stable regulatory regime for the production and use of space data is a crucial step towards incentivising its users and maximising the benefits offered from space data applications. On the other hand, it is essential to also ensure that the data exchanged do not expose more information than was initially meant to be shared. In this context, the debate over privacy versus openness forms the basis of the regulatory conundrum. Therefore, the importance of understanding and addressing the regulatory concerns surrounding the use of space big data is becoming topical.

At the moment, there is no legal regime dedicated to the use of space big data. Space law is limited to the UN Remote Sensing Principles of 1986, which provide some general guidelines, but are of limited scope with regard to space big data. Moreover, laws on data privacy and protection, intellectual property and cybersecurity do not cover adequately the multi-faceted challenges presented

Having taken over outer space, what will be the next frontier for big data?


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