Law & Order: Exterrestrial Unit
We may have the first known case of a crime committed in space.
In what may be the first case of space crime, a NASA astronaut has been accused of illegally accessing her estranged wife’s bank account while stationed onboard the International Space Station:
Summer Worden, a former Air Force intelligence officer living in Kansas, has been in the midst of a bitter separation and parenting dispute for much of the past year. So she was surprised when she noticed that her estranged spouse still seemed to know things about her spending. Had she bought a car? How could she afford that?
Ms. Worden put her intelligence background to work, asking her bank about the locations of computers that had recently accessed her bank account using her login credentials. The bank got back to her with an answer: One was a computer network registered to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
Ms. Worden’s spouse, Anne McClain, was a decorated NASA astronaut on a six-month mission aboard the International Space Station. She was about to be part of NASA’s first all-female spacewalk. But the couple’s domestic troubles on Earth, it seemed, had extended into outer space.
Ms. McClain acknowledged that she had accessed the bank account from space, insisting through a lawyer that she was merely shepherding the couple’s still-intertwined finances. Ms. Worden felt differently. She filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission and her family lodged one with NASA’s Office of Inspector General, accusing Ms. McClain of identity theft and improper access to Ms. Worden’s private financial records.
Investigators from the inspector general’s office have since contacted Ms. Worden and Ms. McClain, trying to get to the bottom of what may be the first allegation of criminal wrongdoing in space.
“I was pretty appalled that she would go that far. I knew it was not O.K.,” Ms. Worden said.
The five space agencies involved in the space station — from the United States, Russia, Japan, Europe and Canada — have long-established procedures to handle any jurisdictional questions that arise when astronauts of various nations are orbiting Earth together. But Mark Sundahl, director of the Global Space Law Center at Cleveland State University, said he was not aware of any previous allegation of a crime committed in space. NASA officials said they were also unaware of any crimes committed on the space station.
Ms. McClain, now back on Earth, submitted to an under-oath interview with the inspector general last week. She contends that she was merely doing what she had always done, with Ms. Worden’s permission, to make sure the family’s finances were in order.
“She strenuously denies that she did anything improper,” said her lawyer, Rusty Hardin, who added that the astronaut “is totally cooperating.”
Mr. Hardin said the bank access from space was an attempt to make sure that there were sufficient funds in Ms. Worden’s account to pay bills and care for the child they had been raising. Ms. McClain had done the same throughout the relationship, he said, with Ms. Worden’s full knowledge.
Ms. McClain continued using the password that she had used previously and never heard from Ms. Worden that the account was now off limits, he added.
A complaint involving bank access from the space station is just one of a number of complex legal issues that have emerged in the age of routine space travel, issues that are expected to grow with the onset of space tourism.
In 2011, NASA organized a sting operation targeting a space engineer’s widow who was looking to sell a moon rock. In 2013, a Russian satellite was damaged after colliding with debris from a satellite that China had destroyed in a 2007 missile test. In 2017, an Austrian businessman sued a space tourism company, seeking to recover his deposit for a planned trip that was not progressing.
“Just because it’s in space doesn’t mean it’s not subject to law,” Mr. Sundahl said.
One potential issue that could arise with any criminal case or lawsuit over extraterrestrial bank communications, Mr. Sundahl said, is discovery: NASA officials would be wary of opening up highly sensitive computer networks to examination by lawyers, for example. But those sorts of legal questions, he said, are going to be inevitable as people spend more time in outer space.
From the description of the decline in the relationship between the two women that led to the allegations against McClain, it appears that they are rooted in a dispute over custody of the child that Worden had prior to the time when the two women met. McClain never adopted the child, but apparently, he was raised jointly and she had made some efforts to move forward with a formal adoption, a process that strained the relationship. As for McClain’s activity while onboard the ISS, it’s hard to say whether or not a crime was committed. McClain had apparently accessed an account that both women had access to and it appears to have been, at least in part, held funds that both women had a legal claim to. It’s unclear whether it was formally a joint account but the fact that Worden had given McClain the password to access the account online and never took steps to change the password. This suggests strongly that McClain was not “hacking” into anything and that she had Worden’s permission, at least implicitly, to access the account even while she was in space. Finally, it’s worth noting the McClain has not been charged with a crime at this time.
That being said, an episode like this is a good reminder of the fact that this is an issue that governments and legal systems will have to deal with as spending time in space becomes more common. The most obvious question would be where jurisdiction lies in such a situation. In this case, the potentially illegal access took place in orbit but it involved accessing a server on Earth, so jurisdiction would most likely lie either where the server was located or, more likely, where the Defendant lives. What about a situation where the crime takes place in space, though? What if someone from one country assaults a co-resident of the ISS from another country while in orbit? Who has jurisdiction? This is especially relevant at this time when American astronauts must rely on a Russian spacecraft to get to and from the ISS. What happens if there’s an incident during an international mission to the Moon or Mars? There are apparently agreements between the nations that visit the ISS that cover some of these issues, and the fact that astronauts and cosmonauts undergo psychological testing before being allowed to go in orbit to ensure that they can handle the stresses of extended time in space. At some point, though, there’s likely to be an incident that these agreements haven’t anticipated. At that point, the lawyers are likely going to have to figure it all out.