Beyer Seeks Regulatory Balance for Commercial Remote Sensing

Beyer Seeks Regulatory Balance for Commercial Remote Sensing

The new chairman of the House space subcommittee thinks Congress will need to strike a balance between addressing national security and privacy concerns about commercial satellite remote sensing data yet not over-regulating the business. Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA) is skeptical legislation will pass anytime soon, but a hearing on the issues is a possibility.

Beyer participated in a Politico webinar on the future of satellite imagery today, sponsored by Maxar, a major provider of such imagery. He is the new chair of the Space and Aeronautics subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, replacing Kendra Horn who lost her bid for reelection.  He also was just appointed to be vice chair of the House-Senate Joint Economic Committee.

The Department of Commerce modernized U.S. commercial remote sensing regulations last year, but efforts to update the underlying law, the 1992 Land Remote Sensing Policy Act, have stalled.

It’s going to be a challenge for us to find the right place to regulate. You don’t want to over-regulate, but on the other hand, there are both national security and privacy concerns that are going to be raised. No magic ball, but I would imagine there could be years of rulemaking coming before us, and in the Congress where everything moves very, very slowly anyway, I wouldn’t expect that we’re going to see lots of new legislation anytime soon.

The United States is just one of many countries selling satellite remote sensing data, so one question is how to regulate U.S. companies without putting them at a competitive disadvantage with foreign competitors.

Rep. Don Beyer (D-Virginia)

Asked about trying to set international rules of road, Beyer said “it would be wonderful if we had a consensus on the balance of things like privacy and access in the U.S. before we tried to go global” but “the world’s moving a lot faster than our attempts to understand how best to manage it.”  He suggested trying to get as many countries as possible to commit to “Geneva Convention-type principles” on resolution, privacy, access and use.  In an age of “artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms” where 30-centimeter data “becomes 15, becomes 10, it becomes pretty scary, pretty fast, unless there is some kind of universal understanding of how it can be used.”

Satellite data has many positive uses such as tracking endangered species or illegal fishing operations, Beyer said, but he worries that as resolution improves it creates privacy issues such as enabling “private eyes” to check on “cheating spouses.”

Megan Coffer of the Center for Geospatial Analytics at North Carolina State University downplayed that likelihood, however.  “We’re still quite a ways away, technologically, from being able to kind of spy on people.”  Transparency and consistency in explaining what can be discerned with satellite imagery “would be a great first step in kind of calming some of the fears surrounding this technology.”

Although Beyer was not optimistic about passing legislation, he agreed “it certainly seems sensible that we hold at least one committee hearing this year on these issues.”

The webinar also addressed the use of satellites to study climate change, one of the Biden Administration’s top priorities. Beyer told Karen St. Germain, the head of NASA’s earth science division, that as Congress looks at NASA’s portfolio of programs “we’re not going to lose sight of how critically important NASA is for understanding climate change. So, Karen, I think you’re secure for the next four years.  As my friend Ellen Stofan says, it’s really important to study all the planets, especially the one we live on.”

A former NASA Chief Scientist and former Director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum, Stofan is now Under Secretary for Science and Research at the Smithsonian.

User Comments has the right (but not the obligation) to monitor the comments and to remove any materials it deems inappropriate.  We do not post comments that include links to other websites since we have no control over that content nor can we verify the security of such links.