Impact of State Security Concerns on the Geospatial Sector

Geospatial Jun 24, 2021

In February, 2021, the Department of Science and Technology (DST) liberalised the heavily regulated geospatial sector in India by issuing the 'Guidelines for Acquiring and Producing Geospatial Data and Geospatial Data Services Including Maps' ('the Guidelines'). The publishing of these guidelines was followed by the release of the Draft National Geospatial Policy (the 'Draft NGP') on 27th April, 2021, a more comprehensive plan to encourage the growth of the geospatial economy in the country.
Till the release of the guidelines and the Draft NGP, the Geospatial Information (GI) sector in India was generally characterised by over-regulation, complicated compliance procedures and overriding national security concerns.

Background

The Indian government's outlook on the sharing of geospatial data was heavily influenced by concerns over state security. Until the 1950s, maps prepared by the Survey of India (SoI) could be used only for official purposes, and their dissemination by “unauthorised persons” to the public was barred by the Official Secrets Act, 1923. [1] In the 1950s the chief mandate of the SoI was to provide the requisite geospatial data to the defence forces[2], although in 1965, the Defence Department permitted the public distribution of maps of scale 1:4 million by the SoI.
Even under the recently enacted Map Policy (2005), there was a complete prohibition on sharing Defense Series Maps prepared by the SoI. Even the other type of topographical maps- the ‘Open Series Maps’ having a resolution finer than 1:1 million could not be publicly shared; they had to be disseminated either through sale or via an agreement between SoI and the other transacting party.

Overriding National Security Concerns

Despite demands from geospatial experts and professionals to undertake the acquisition of the latest geospatial technology and improve India's operational capabilities, the government continues to restrict private investment in the GI sector, and prohibit the sharing of several types of data by state agencies like the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). As a result, experts assert that India's satellite imaging capability is below its potential and there is limited availability of high-resolution images for many regions in the country.

This poses a challenge to the setting up of a national-level Geographic Information System (GIS); India will have to rely on a mix of Indian and foreign images to set it up, posing further challenges to GI processing in terms of issues related to data compatibility, usability, rationalisation and costs. [3] Moreover, rapid advancements in foreign mapping platforms like Google Maps, make it difficult for Indian companies to be globally competitive in the sector. The challenges faced by India in addressing these issues can be largely attributed to prevailing concerns over state security.

In 2016, in the aftermath of the Pathankot attack when terrorists infiltrated an Air Force base in Pathankot using information obtained from Google Earth and Google Maps, the government prepared a 'Draft Geospatial Information Regulation Bill' (GIRB) to tackle the threats being purportedly caused by the dissemination of geospatial data. Had the GIRB been enacted, wrongly depicting India's map would have attracted imprisonment up to seven years, and innocuous activities like taking photographs from aeroplanes would have been criminalised.

The GIRB also sought to impose additional restrictions on the dissemination of geospatial data; activities such as the sharing of location via WhatsApp would have been outlawed and platforms like Ola and Uber would have had to obtain special licenses from the government to service customers. However, after considerable opposition from industry experts such as online map-makers, GPS providers and satellite-launchers, the GIRB was shelved by the Home Ministry. [4]

The Draft NGP seeks to do away with the requirement of obtaining a security clearance from government agencies for making maps. It also requires ‘Open Access Data’ [3] to be provided to state entities free of charge, and to private entities either free of charge or at a fair and transparent price which will be fixed by the department. Another key feature of the NGP is the mandate to create a National Data Registry (NDR) which will serve as a unified platform for access to all geospatial data repositories in the country.

However, despite these liberalisation measures, the Draft NGP continues to prohibit foreign companies and foreign-owned/controlled Indian companies from digitising, storing and sharing maps which have a resolution finer than 1:100, unless they do so by obtaining a license from an Indian company.

Are these prohibitions warranted?

Rather than imposing a blanket ban on foreign entities seeking to work with geospatial data finer than the threshold resolution, the government can restrict them from using data which is 'sensitive' from the viewpoint of protecting state security. The absence of robust competition from technologically advanced foreign entities may hamper the ability of the Indian private sector to innovate in the geospatial technology sector and have an adverse impact on the ease of doing business in India. Lastly, such protectionism will curtail dialogue between Indian and foreign entities including universities, researchers, think tanks and companies, limiting valuable collaboration and knowledge exchange between them. [5]


[1] R. Ramchandran (2000)- Public access to Indian geographical data

[2] The Centre for Internet and Society (2016)- Legal Challenges to Mapping in India #1 - Laws, Policies, and Cases

[3] 9 National Institute of Advanced Studies (2012)- Perspectives for National GI Policy

[4] The Wire (2016)- Draft Geospatial Bill Criticised by Cyber Law Experts

[5] TEAL Whitepaper (2021)- Geospatial Data Regulations in India


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