7. Understanding privacy risks - A breakdown of relevant privacy issues


The most common payload (equipment) of drones is a camera! When drones are carrying visual sensors (high-resolution, thermal imaging or infrared cameras, etc.), the following privacy-related issues can arise. Note, some of these issues arise even in the mere presence of a drone or when a drone is equipped with non-visual imaging.

  • What is it? Privacy of location and space means the right of an individual to move about freely in their own home without being identified, tracked and monitored. People have this right even in some public or semi-public spaces where they reasonably expect to have privacy, for example a secluded part of a park or a beach.  

    How can it be infringed? This right can be infringed whenever you use your drone in a way that can locate a person – by taking pictures, recording video, using GPS location, automatic number plate recognition software, as well as real-time video transmission. This can occur even if you are using these capabilities only as a recreational user, e.g., by following a friend, family member or a romantic interest, or as a parent worrying for their child.  

    How to avoid it? Do not target or follow people with your drone. Do not collect information on where anyone goes for longer periods of time.

    Respect the private space of individuals when flying a drone!
  • What is it? Bodily privacy means the right of a person to keep their body and their body parts private.  

    How can it be infringed? Bodily privacy can be infringed when you use drones to take pictures or images in locations where people’s bodies may be exposed, e.g. the park on a sunny day, the beach or at a pool party. Drones can also threaten this privacy if they are fitted with equipment such as thermal sensory capabilities, facial recognition, biological and chemical sensors. Biometric data captured through the use of a drone for the purpose of identification is the most common example.

    How to avoid it? Do not use your drone in spaces where people’s bodies may be exposed and they may expect to remain private. Do not focus on capturing people’s bodies, especially if people are not aware of your activities and have not agreed to them.

    Respect the bodily privacy of individuals when flying a drone!
  • What is it? Privacy of association refers to the freedom of people to associate with others.

    How can it be infringed? If a drone is fitted with a camera or sensors, such as GPS, an individual’s membership(s), affiliation(s) and other private group activities may be detected. This applies, for example, with regard to political, religious or trade union affiliation(s).

    How to avoid it? Be careful where you operate your drone and at what times. For example, do not fly your drone near religious buildings at times when there are religious gatherings in them.

    Respect the right of individuals to associate freely with others!
  • What is it? 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.

    How is it caused? Drone use can result in a chilling effect when individuals feel discouraged from participating in social movements, social gatherings or even public dissent activities or any other related general exercise of an individual’s legitimate 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, or as a result of merely fearing the presence of a drone.

    How to avoid it? The least you could do is informing people what you are doing, why, who you are and how you can be reached.

    Remember to fly your drone responsibly without encroaching on an individual’s right to behave as they usually would! 
  • What is it and when might it occur? Drone operators can feel physically or psychologically removed from the consequences felt by people on the ground (due to geographical difference or the remote/ automated drone operation).This can minimise the responsibility felt by you as the drone operator for any intended or unintended invasion caused by the drone use.

    How to avoid it? Be aware of the issue and remember that every person you see, even through a television or computer screen, deserves your full respect and understanding.

    Remember that your moral responsibilities are not reduced just because you are at a distance from another individual(s) when you are operating your drone, even if the person captured in the footage is not aware of your drone! 
  • What is it and when might it occur? Drones can remain undetected by individuals on the ground when they are small, quiet and/ or operated from a distance. They could even be operated by automatic software or hacked or intercepted during flight. This means that they can remain undetected when used for voyeuristic behaviours and/ or harassment or stalking, and other criminal activities.  

    How to avoid it? The individual on the ground should be aware of the drone’s operation in order to detect any inappropriate behaviour. The individual on the ground should also be able to identify and contact who is responsible for the drone, especially if an individual’s right to private life has been infringed. Inform them of what you are doing, why, who you are and how you can be reached. To draw attention to the drone, you may also paint it in a brighter colour. Consider including your contact details on the drone itself.

    Remember to ensure that your drone use is visible and that you do not engage in any privacy invasive use! 
  • What is it and when might it occur? A 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. For example, if you originally use your drone to take footage of a private residence for re-sale, you may notice you can do a lot more and end up monitoring the behaviour of your neighbours.

    How to avoid it? Remember that you should always respect other people’s privacy and always consider if what you want to do might harm someone.

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