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Digital Mapping: Restrictions

Volume 795: debated on Thursday 31 January 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they place restrictions on commercial companies seeking to digitally map towns and cities in the United Kingdom; and if not, why not.

My Lords, there are no restrictions on the creation of mapping databases of the UK. The UK has world-leading mapping data and this is an area of competitive advantage, offering significant economic opportunities. In 2018, the Government created the Geospatial Commission to elevate this strength and it is currently developing a UK-wide strategy to realise the opportunities. As part of this, it will consider both risks and opportunities for current arrangements for access to mapping data.

I thank the Minister for his Answer. This is privately gathered data. There is at least one major high-definition survey going on, financed by a foreign-owned company that bases its services on Russian mapping software. Every day, data is processed in places such as Nairobi. This is not Google Maps; it is high-definition software pinpointing our civil infra- structure. The Minister seems relatively unconcerned about this. Can he assure your Lordships’ House that a risk analysis will be carried out on the security nature of this data and some sort of strategy provided around how it is controlled within the obviously important commercial interests going on in this country?

I understand the noble Lord’s concern. He has tabled a number of Written Questions on the subject. In view of his concern, I have gone back to those responsible for security and received an assurance that those responsible for our critical national infrastructure are not asking for the restrictions on commercial mapping that the noble Lord seeks.

My Lords, precision digital mapping and the metadata associated with it are crucial in establishing nodal analysis and targeting, nodal analysis being identifying the one or two spots within water, energy and transport systems that, when taken out, can bring a nation to its knees. Bearing that in mind, could the Minister let us know exactly who is looking at this to make this decision? It is pretty critical and, as a nation, we went to immense efforts to discover people who might be our enemies so that we could do them harm. We do not want to open ourselves up to people to do us harm.

Again, I understand the noble Lord’s concern. Access to critical national infrastructure sites is, of course, heavily restricted. Ordnance Survey, as the Government’s national mapping agency, is the only mapping organisation that has right of access to property for the purpose of mapping under the Ordnance Survey Act, passed by your Lordships’ House in 1841. But in view of the concern that the noble Lord has expressed and that of the noble Lord, Lord Fox, I will go back to double-check the information I have been given. Of course, much of this information is already obtainable through satellites and Google street survey. The Soviet Union has mapped the UK since the 1940s. One has to be realistic about the amount of information already available—satellites can identify objects that are 30 centimetres long.

My Lords, would the Minister care to comment on the following? I was returning in a taxi from outside London to London. Going up my road, the driver was able to tell me the colour of my front door—he knew exactly what it was. Is that a healthy situation to be in?

I hope it enabled the noble Lord to reach his destination. The geophysical data available helps people in their everyday lives. Noble Lords waiting for a 159 bus can use their iPhones to see when that bus will be coming. Noble Lords who might have forgotten where they parked their car can use their mobile phones to identify it. Noble Lords who go jogging in the morning can see whether they are going faster or slower than other noble Lords on the same circuit. One has to recognise that there are real advantages from having this geophysical data. I would not be concerned if everybody knew the colour of my front door.

My Lords, during the Second World War—a period in which many members of the Conservative Party still appear to live—a suspicious foreigner taking pictures of houses would have been stopped by some doughty Britain such as Mark Francois and challenged in case he was a German. There were, and surely still are, some security questions to answer. Is it not proper for the Government to promise us a review of this? In the meantime, could the Minister tell us whether British map readers, satellite users and so on can discover as much detail about houses and critical national infrastructure in Russia and China as they now can about us?

On the first question raised by the noble Lord, I refer back to my original Answer. I said that part of this is about considering both risks and opportunities for current arrangements for access to mapping data. In this country, because of the excellence of Ordnance Survey, there are relatively few commercial marketing organisations doing this work. Most of them build on the data from Ordnance Survey and add value to it. What knowledge we have of critical installations in Russia is a matter for the MoD, rather than a humble Minister in the Cabinet Office. But in the light of the views expressed on both sides I will go back and double-check the information that I have been given.

My Lords, I fear that this is a case of your Lordships’ House trying to shut a stable door that has long been open. The Minister has highlighted our increasing dependence on global navigation data, whether while jogging or whatever else it may be. But this is about not just noble Lords jogging or trying to find their cars but about the maritime world, trains and everything else that depends on GNSS data. How far have the Government got in implementing the recommendations of the Blackett review of the extreme dependence of our national infrastructure on GNSS data, in particular in the financial sector, which would collapse if that data was interrupted?

The noble Lord makes a valuable point. As I said in my original reply, we have established a new Geospatial Commission and it has a number of objectives. If one looks at its five objectives, which I will not read out, one will see that they include the issue that he mentioned. At the risk of using jargon, which I criticised the last time I was here—and because he makes a valuable point—high-quality, cross-cutting geospatial data and ecosystems are fundamental building blocks of our vibrant and innovative digital economy.