Keeping Pace with Law and Policy

USGIF Launches Geospatial and Remote Sensing Law Working Group


The motto in the office of National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) General Counsel Cynthia Ryan is “Know the Law, Find a Way.” It’s a mantra easily transferable to USGIF’s Geospatial and Remote Sensing Law Working Group, which met for the first time July 12. Ryan co-chairs the group with Kevin Pomfret, founder and director of the Centre for Spatial Law and Policy.

“We want to educate attorneys on legal issues, develop training on key legal issues on GEOINT for USGIF non-attorney members, and to develop a community of interest with lawyers to share information regarding geospatial law,” Ryan said, summarizing the objectives outlined in the working group’s charter. “The group will initially include about 20 attorneys from across government and industry and at least one academic. This cross section of participants represents what Pomfret calls “the evolving geospatial ecosystem, where industry, government, and the crowd are both data providers and data users, almost simultaneously, and where the impact of regulation on one has a much broader impact on the entire ecosystem.”

The working group is reaching out to members of USGIF’s Small Business and Small Satellite working groups to begin a dialogue and identify their concerns about geospatial law. It’s a way for the lawyers to hear from industry and communicate their understanding of ongoing regulation changes and court findings, as well as begin to interpret what they mean to the GEOINT Community. Driving the group is the understanding that technological development typically far outpaces the laws and policies that govern its use.

“As we embark upon the GEOINT revolution, the myriad technological advances related to location and remote sensing are significantly outpacing the development of associated policy and law,” said USGIF CEO Keith Masback. “Decisions are being made daily at all levels of government in the U.S. (and abroad), as courts set precedents gavel drop by gavel drop. As this group gets up and running, we think it will play a crucial role in organizing a more coherent way forward.”

The group strives to ensure laws and policies are considered at the front end of innovation, however that goal isn’t always possible or practical.

“The key for non-lawyers is to understand the legal issues that arise when you’re trying to conceptualize, develop, and deploy systems and data,” Ryan said. “There’s a whole host of issues that industry needs to be aware of, legal issues that arise within government and companies in private industry as well.”

Raising awareness becomes less of an issue as regulations and policies make their way through courts and legislatures. Reacting and conforming to new regulation is another matter.

Kevin Pomfret, executive director of The Centre for Spatial Law and Policy, and Cynthia Ryan, general counsel at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, spoke about legal and policy trends in the GEOINT Community on the Government Pavilion Stage at the GEOINT 2015 Symposium in June. Pomfret and Ryan co-chair USGIF’s new Geospatial and Remote Sensing Law Working Group.

“We want to give enough knowledge about what the law is in particular areas so that if the geospatial professionals see something they have a concern about, they can spot it and also articulate it to their lawyer in a way that their lawyer can understand,” Pomfret said. “For the near-term, anyway, it’s going to be incumbent upon the professionals to identify some of these issues and explain their concerns to their lawyers so that they can both work through a solution.”

In March, USGIF and Pomfret’s Centre for Spatial Law and Policy entered into a memorandum of agreement under which the Centre and USGIF will educate the geospatial community on the unique legal and policy issues that impact the collection, use, storage, and distribution of geospatial information. USGIF and the Centre will, in addition to the creation of the Geospatial and Remote Sensing Law Working Group, develop training and education materials for GEOINT practitioners, host workshops, and further an understanding of geospatial and remote sensing law.

The group’s work begins with an understanding that if the GEOINT industry is going to continue advancing, the public perception of the technology must continue to evolve—with the help of lawyers.

“We need to be involved with the agency or company at the time of conceptualization [of technology], or at least as early as possible, so that we can identify appropriate legal paths to accomplish the mission,” Ryan said.

“Retrofitting to comply after the build [could cost] the organization financial and personnel resources or unacceptable risk of non-compliance.”

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