This question comes from an answer at Why is there a pregnancy test kit on the ISS? that says "US medical privacy laws" apply on the ISS. These US laws are for the most part addressed at http://www.hhs.gov/ocr/privacy/ most US citizens are familiar with the term HIPAA as it applies to medical privacy.

We have a couple distantly related questions about law in space Jurisdiction over crime in space & What would happen if a mutiny occurred on the International Space Station?

There is no doubt that a person on the ground in the US is subject to US law. But what about in space or on the ISS; these two documents ISS Crew Code of Conduct & ISS Crew Disciplinary Policy are military type command and reporting responsibilities. It seems like something similar to admiralty law or maritime law would apply, but I really don't know. I am specifically excluding questions of a civil or liability nature, this is questions is about criminal activities which could result in jail time. Violations of HIPAA can result "imprisonment for up to ten years"

As person on the ISS are you subject to any criminal laws of the US?

Note: While the question is written around HIPAA I am interested in all criminal law.

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    $\begingroup$ Would it matter if the astronaut was active duty Marine/Army/Navy/Air Force employee as well? $\endgroup$
    – geoffc
    Commented Mar 27, 2015 at 15:18
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    $\begingroup$ US military status would probably impact this question, if you are US military assigned to the ISS you would be on duty all the time, and I believe (educated guess) that military law would prevail, you would be subject to UCMJ at all times that you are on active duty, without regard to your physical location. For the most part this preempts civilian law. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 27, 2015 at 15:22
  • $\begingroup$ I think the medical privacy issue is actually that there are specific rules about the medical information of government employees is treated $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 27, 2015 at 21:19
  • $\begingroup$ What the heck is HIPAA? $\endgroup$
    – user8406
    Commented Mar 27, 2015 at 23:07
  • $\begingroup$ HIPAA is the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996. The primary goal of the law is to make it easier for people to keep health insurance, protect the confidentiality and security of healthcare information and help the healthcare industry control administrative costs. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 28, 2015 at 0:48

1 Answer 1


The International Space Station Intergovernmental Agreement covers the ISS. Under the IGA, as it is often known, the laws of the nation (or region, in the case of the European Union) apply to its citizens and property :

This extension of national jurisdiction determines what laws are applicable for activities occurring on a Partner’s Space Station elements (e.g. European law in the European Columbus Laboratory). This legal regime recognises the jurisdiction of the Partner States’s courts and allows the application of national laws in such areas as criminal matters, liability issues, and protection of intellectual property rights. Any conflicts of jurisdiction between the Partners may be resolved through the application of other rules and procedures already developed nationally and internationally.

The basic rule is that 'each partner shall retain jurisdiction and control over the elements it registers and over personnel in or on the Space Station who are its nationals' (Article 5 of the Intergovernmental Agreement).

So if you are American, US law applies wherever you are in the station. If you are French, European Union law applies to you. If an American and a Frenchman get into a fight, during which Russian property is damaged, things get extremely complicated. To handle this, there is a cross-waiver of liability. Under it, liability for all damage is waived, including:

(i) Bodily injury to, or other impairment of health of, or death of, any person; (ii) Damage to, loss of, or loss of use of any property; (iii) Loss of revenue or profits; or (iv) Other direct, indirect, or consequential damage.

So that covers everything serious, as long as it happened as part of official duties. Obviously there is a big grey area there. In the above example, if there was some shouting and shoving while on duty and someone accidentally kicked a laptop monitor, perhaps it would be permitted to come under the waiver. If it is decided that an act was criminal, then

In a case involving misconduct on orbit that: (a) affects the life or safety of a national of another Partner State or (b) occurs in or on or causes damage to the flight element of another Partner State, the Partner State whose national is the alleged perpetrator shall, at the request of any affected Partner State, consult with such State concerning their respective prosecutorial interests. An affected Partner State may, following such consultation, exercise criminal jurisdiction over the alleged perpetrator provided that, within 90 days of the date of such consultation or within such other period as may be mutually agreed, the Partner State whose national is the alleged perpetrator either:

(1) concurs in such exercise of criminal jurisdiction, or

(2) fails to provide assurances that it will submit the case to its competent authorities for the purpose of prosecution.

That quote comes from the document itself. After that point it starts talking about extradition procedures. So it is a mess and let's hope it never happens on the ISS. If a citizen of Partner State A beat the hell out of a citizen of Partner State B, and Partner State B was not pleased by how Partner State A was handling the matter, well then they could demand extradition and apply their own laws.

Bottom line, everything up there depends on diplomacy.


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