5. Which of my activities could impact on privacy and how can I avoid infringing privacy?


Depending on your activities, location, drone payloads and the data you collect, your professional drone use can impact privacy rights in various ways. Your professional drone use can also trigger the application of data protection law.

The following will assist you in understanding how your use of drones could affect people’s privacy.

  • If people are captured in any images or footage you collect, this could harm aspects of their privacy. This is also true if you collect images through infrared or thermal technology! This could harm a person’s:

    • Bodily privacy - People have the right to keep aspects of their person and of their body private.
    • Privacy of data and image - People have the right to control who has their data or their images and whether, how and why they can use them.
  • Targeting a person or capturing them for continuous periods of time–Capturing a single person/ specific group of persons for a prolonged period of time or if you target them specifically will raise privacy concerns.  

    Do not target, monitor and observe a person for prolonged periods of time without their knowledge and agreement, for example, by using a zoom lens or a directional microphone. This applies to both public and private spaces. Otherwise, you risk threatening a person’s:

    • Privacy of location and space - People have the right to move freely without being identified, tracked or monitored. This applies both to people’s homes and some public spaces where they expect some privacy.
    • Privacy of behaviour and action– People have the right to act freely both in public and in private without their actions being monitored or controlled by others.
  • In particular circumstances, information which you happen to collect could make it possible to learn more about a person than simply their appearance or location. That could be, for example, if you capture images of religious buildings, political party establishments, or trade union offices. Assumptions can be made regarding a person captured walking in or out of such a building.  

    Another issue could arise if your drone is used to transport communication between people in some way - via wireless networks or by delivering postal packages.  

    In these cases, you could threaten the following types of privacy:  

    • Privacy of thoughts and feelings - People have the right not to share their thoughts or feelings or to have them revealed. This includes their beliefs and opinions.
    • Privacy of association - People have the right to associate with whomever they wish without being monitored. This includes meeting and interacting, as well as being part of a larger ethnic, religious or political group.
    • Privacy of personal communication - People have the right to communicate in secret with whomever they wish. Accessing, recording or intercepting their communication without their consent or another legal requirement is not allowed.
  • Drones could remain undetected by individuals on the ground, especially if they are small, quiet and operated from a distance or fly autonomously. This means that individuals may not be aware if they are being observed and, even if they are being observed, they would not know who is operating the drone and why. This could raise issues with the transparency, visibility and the accountability of drone users.

    How to avoid it?

    Make your drone more visible by painting it in a brighter colour. People must be able to see who is operating the drone so you could include your company’s logo. Engage in a public information campaign through appropriate means, e.g. advertisements, signs, social media announcements, that inform people about your planned activities, including location and time. Inform people of what the drone will be doing, why, for whom and how people could contact you if they have any concerns or questions. If someone does not wish to be filmed, you should respect their wish.

    What legal aspects should I be aware of?

    In the EU, data protection laws have laid down detailed rules on the accountability of people and companies if they collect and use data that may lead to the identification of (an) individual(s). This is data protection law.

  • Using a drone without any identification and without engaging in an information campaign prior to your operation may leave people on the ground feeling insecure and observed, even if your drone does not carry any recording equipment. People would not know who is operating the drone and they may experience a chilling effect.

    A chilling effect occurs when individuals perform a form of self-preservation / self-censorship by restricting their behaviour when they are, or believe that they are, being watched. Individuals may feel discouraged from participating in social movements, social gatherings, public dissent activities or any other related general exercise of their rights, such as freedom of assembly or freedom of expression. This can occur even in the mere presence of a drone, even if they are not actually being filmed by that drone.

    How can it be avoided?

    Be visible and contactable. By informing people of who you are and your activities, you give them more knowledge about the drone’s use. People can then remain in control of what they are doing without experiencing any unnecessary fear.

  • If you start using your drone for additional reasons to what you first intended to do, you should be careful of the danger of performing function creep. Function creep refers to the possibility that a system which was originally intended for one purpose extends its operation to fulfil additional purposes at the discretion of the drone user. This could happen, for example, when a drone is originally used to map an area around a private residence but ends up capturing information that is later used for assessing the living standard of the people in the neighbourhood.

    How can it be avoided? 

    Keep a clear plan of what you will use the drone for and what you will do with any data you collect. Do not deviate from this plan.

    What legal aspects should I be aware of? 

    A function creep, when it involves people’s personal data, could be contrary to the purpose limitation principle in data protection law and could make you legally accountable.

Download the full PDF version