Eye Sky with my little Fly
The European Union (EU) is taking a long, hard look at how best to integrate drones, not only into European civil aviation system, but also for civilian and commercial uses.
In an in-depth research paper, entitled “Privacy and Data Protection Implications of the Civil Use of Drones” – for the committee on civil liberties, justice and home affairs – a whole range of potential opportunities and challenges are outlined, with recommendations on how best EU policy should handle them.
The challenges, of course, run the gamut from citizens’ right to privacy and data protection to security and safety when it comes to drones, both from an accidental injury point of view and malicious use cases like terrorism or civil disobedience.
The EU has long been in the vanguard when it comes to citizens’ data protection and it’s clear, therefore, the fact most drones possess video camera and other recording devices gives many on the regulation side pause. Or, in non technical terms, the heebie jeebies.
After all, with a drone, as well as being able to peer over a neighbors’ fence or hover over their backyard, more nefarious individuals could potentially make use of features like high power zoom, facial recognition, behavior profiling, movement detection, number plate recognition, thermal sensors, night vision, radar, see-through imaging, Wi-fi sensors, microphones, biometric sensors, GPS systems for processing the location of the persons filmed, systems to read IP addresses/track RFID devices and systems to intercept electronic communications (NSA, anyone?).
All these things make both covert and overt surveillance and tracking of individuals or groups (including during demonstrations) both possible and likely. George Orwell called, he wants his storyline back!
Europeans, on the whole, are a lot more sensitive than Americans to having their civil rights trampled, and as a result, the EU dedicates significant time and effort trying to ensure people don’t feel like they’re constantly living under surveillance, either by the government or random corporate entities.
The fear of being spied on, however, seems to go both ways, and it’s not just regular citizens who might develop near-psychotic paranoia from the fear of being drone-watched or stalked.
Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel, for instance, had a rather close encounter with a drone that entered her space recently, while several nuclear power plants have reported unauthorized civilian drone flyovers.
While many might gloat at the prospect of the watchers being watched, many officials have pressed for basic security measures, like geofencing to keep drones a good distance from major political figures, airports, military bases, embassies or national tourist attractions, which all seems to make a good deal of sense. After all, freedom is best consumed alongside a small but healthy dose of national security.
James Bond-style drama aside, there are also much milder concerns outlined in the paper over other potential nuisances drones can pose from a noise standpoint, which, it’s suggested would likely be tackled on a local level by police. (“Officer, it’s 3am and my neighbors drone just woke up my baby! Arrest these hooligans!”)
Alas, current technology, bemoans the paper, doesn’t yet allow for systems to really prevent drones flying undetected or buzzing into no-fly zones , not to mention how to stop them from being easily hacked or hijacked. Nor is there yet any reliable implementation of tacking responsibility and liability onto drone operators themselves, should things go awry, as identification of owners or pilots is not currently required by most EU member states. The paper floats the idea of embedding drones with electronic identity chip (“IDrones”) or setting up standardized web-portals for the registration of operators, both of which could be controversial if not properly explained to the public.
Indeed, without getting citizens involved openly and democratically, the paper notes, it will be practically impossible to get any kind of public consensus or acceptance with regard to drones.
Public debate of the issues has the added value of raising awareness of privacy implications, which the committee feels will support and increase compliance with whatever regulations do eventually get drafted up.
It might also be advisable, notes the paper, for various member states to jot down what they each individually plan to do in terms of drone legislation, so other countries can compare and contrast best practices.
On the whole, these best practices, says the paper, will likely center on encouraging manufacturers to implement privacy by design, embedding data protection into drones from the outset.
Thankfully, and crucially, what the study does not support is the need for an overarching European regulation on the matter, as this, the paper points out, would likely run the risk of inadequacy, obsoleteness, different interpretation and views on data protection and privacy, cost for industry, regulators and the public. Instead, the recommendation is for soft law measures to minimize risks.
All in all, sensible suggestions, and ones that aren’t too pie in the sky when it comes either to regulation or implementation.
At FTI, as one of the few global consultancies with deep roots in policy, regulation, and technology, our team, both in Europe and the United Space, routinely analyzes and evaluates conversation and events in the drone space. Indeed, our integrated US/EU tech/regulation team believes there are many unexplored opportunities for drone-related businesses, from managing risks, to implementation of open standards, to building a strong communication infrastructure to deal not only with operational risk but issues like privacy and security.
Our team in Brussels is plugged in to all major policy movement, while our team here in San Francisco and Washington DC keeps its finger firmly on the FAA’s pulse.
For more information about drones, and FTI’s views on the subject, keep an eye on our blog, especially our skytek series.