Let’s not get overdramatic about UAV privacy laws

Gareth Bird of Bird’s Eye Solutions is becoming increasingly concerned by the issue of drones and data protection laws, and suggests it is no worse than many other data collection methods.

In BIM+’s recent article ‘Drones: When Does Monitoring Become Spying?’ we are given the impression that a UAV is used in breach of the data protection laws, even when deployed by a Civil Aviation Authority-approved PfCO (Permission for Commercial Operations) holder on contract.

Data protection is a contentious issue and, as with many laws, can be open to interpretation. Thankfully, in one key area, it is quite clear: in order to use a person’s image, a photographer requires permission from that individual.

Photographers have been using “model release” forms for many years, to record that permission. The problem is, how do we define what a person’s image is? Well, they have to be readily identifiable.

At the wide-angle focal lengths, distances and high angles involved with UAV survey work, people tend to become pixilated and unrecognisable. A photographer on the ground with a 200mm lens can capture individual hairs on a head at 100 metres, but this is not the case with a UAV. The corollary, then, is that a ground-based photographer is more of a threat to privacy than a UAV.

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Think for a moment about the many methods employers use these days to secure their properties: CCTV, individually issued and chipped ID cards to control access, computer logs, telephone recording to name a few. Such surveillance methods haven’t enjoyed the same level of scrutiny that the UAV community has, despite information being garnered in far greater volumes and being much more personal.

It is an employer’s right to be able to use such methods to make their business more productive and secure. So why then should UAVs being employed by a company as part of a many layered approach to security and efficiency, be considered more intrusive?

Additionally, if the owner of the site has given permission for UAV operations and the contractor/employees have been informed, then the UAV operator is legally entitled to deploy UAVs and use the information captured.

While undoubtedly there will be individuals who will seek to flout laws and exploit any available opportunity, let’s try not to tar an entire industry with the same brush. The key to legally obtaining and using remotely acquired data is open dialogue between all agencies and concerned parties, a common understanding, a robust set of (unambiguous) regulations and use of CAA-approved PfCO holders.

Unfortunately, commercial UAV operations are governed, regulated and monitored by several, disparate agencies and laws and because of that, commercial drone use appears an impossible minefield to navigate.

However, a safe path has been well trodden by the many Civil Aviation Authority-approved National Qualified Entities for UAV training and UAV PfCO holders. They would be more than happy to discuss the nuances of legally operating a remote craft for commercial data acquisition.

Gareth Bird is a professional UAV pilot at Bird’s Eye Solutions

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