Illegal downloading of satellite data on Svalbard?

The debate is currently running hot in Norwegian medias after the recent publication of a book by Norwegian author Bård Wormdal, who claims that the SvalSat ground station on Svalbard is violating the Svalbard Treaty of 1920 by downloading satellite data that are used in warfare.

According to Wormdal, SvalSat is an important source of intelligence data used in tactical mission planning by American forces, for instance during the recent battles in Libya. This compromises the Svalbard Treaty, which declares the archipelago as a demilitarised zone not to be utilised for warlike purposes, he claims.

His opponents (including the EO industry) advocate that there is no conflict, even though meteorological images and other environmental data are evidently used by the military. Norwegian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Jonas Gahr Støre, has previously established that the term “warlike purposes” must be understood as offensive measures undertaken as part of warfare, and does not prohibit any activity that could possibly be utilised in military operations.

It is far-fetched to characterise downloading of weather satellite images as part of any warfare. These products have not been processed to increases their value for military users, the images routinely cover the whole Earth, and the main use is definitely not military.

However, if the ground station on Svalbard is used to relay high resolution images of battlefields, it raises other questions. Can the owners of SvalSat control that none of the data flushed through their systems have been ordered by military end users? Do they check that the acquired images do not cover a conflict area? According to Kongsberg Satellite Services, the fulfillment of the Svalbard Treaty is purely based on trust between them and their customers. This is hardly reassuring, and leaves room for a continued debate.

News articles:
Dagbladet, 9 Nov 2011
NRK, 9 Nov 2011
Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 22 Mar 2010

Posted by Stian Normann Anfinsen

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