drone-camera-ukThe idea of drones is one that most people probably associate with the battlefield. The use of these unmanned aircraft in warzones has caused controversy but this is not the only scenario in which they are used.

The use of drones by both businesses and members of the public to take footage and photographs has been dramatically increasing and they are expected to be a popular feature under people’s trees this Christmas.

In October this year, a man from Nottingham was arrested for breach of the Air Navigation Order for flying a drone over the Etihad Stadium during Manchester City’s game against Tottenham Hotspur. The police cited the threat of the drone dropping out of the sky onto someone below or causing the crowd to be alarmed.

This story came days after a drone flying a nationalist Albanian banner was spotted during a match between Serbia and Albania, causing fights to break out. The game was eventually abandoned.

Only a few days ago, a commercial airbus was at “serious risk” of colliding with an unidentified drone as it came into land at Heathrow Airport.

Public safety aside, it has been suggested that drones could be taken advantage of by paparazzi looking to get more exclusive pictures of celebrities.

In response to this increased usage the Information Commissioner’s office (ICO) has issued new guidance on the operation of the unmanned aerial vehicles.

These new rules form part of the ICO’s guidelines on CCTV [pdf]. When the CCTV guidelines were first published by the ICO in 2000, CCTV needed little explanation. However, times have changed dramatically and the ICO are racing to keep up with the latest challenges to privacy and personal information.

Whilst the examples of these emerging technologies may be new, the underlying principles remain the same – organisations need to think through how cameras and the information they capture will be used. The guidance says

“If you are using a drone with a camera, there could be a privacy risk to other people. The likelihood of recording individuals inadvertently is high, because of the height they can operate at and the unique vantage point they afford.”

Personal use of drones is unlikely to pose data-protection issues, but for institutions using drones for a “more formal, professional purpose”, they should be aware of their obligations as a data controller.

The use of drones for surveillance can only be DPA compliant where there is a strong justification and a robust public interest. They should be easy to switch on and off to ensure the recording of data is appropriate and not excessive. Pilots should let people know before they start to record them, should plan their flight in advance and not let their drone out of sight – both to ensure they don’t lose it, and to reassure members of the public that they are the one responsible for the vehicle.

So, while it is reassuring that the ICO is taking a firm stance on the professional use of drones, it remains to be seen how this will be adequately policed.

As drones can be controlled some distance from the pilot, it is perfectly conceivable that a user could surreptitiously obtain footage and photographs without the subject being able to identify the perpetrator.

There is a very real and worrying possibility that drones may soon become the next big anonymous threat to privacy rights. Individuals in the public eye could find their everyday movements being recorded without any knowledge of the photographs being taken and no obvious way of identifying the perpetrator.

In an age where public figures increasingly have to take out injunctions to prevent harassment by paparazzi this is an extremely concerning scenario. It is likely that harassment orders will eventually need to be adapted and expanded in scope to cover the use of drones and more extensive research will need to be undertaken in an attempt to identify the source of the offending photographs before such orders are applied for which will no doubt prolong the process.

Of course it is not just celebrities who are likely to be affected by drone usage, ordinary members of the public have a right not to be covertly followed and observed without their knowledge or consent. It will be interesting to see how the police, ICO and privacy law adapt to the growing use of this emerging technology and the inherent difficulties it presents.

This post originally appeared on the Himsworth Legal blog and is reproduced with permission and thanks