Before long drones may be nigh-on ubiquitous. Experts have predicted that the 20,000 drones shipped by Amazon last year are the start of something huge, and that they will become part of the fabric of “smart” cities. “The technology is already there,” Mirko Kovac of the Aerial Robotics Laboratory told the Guardian, “they will fly in swarms like starlings to conserve energy, delivering mail, bouncing Wi-Fi signals, cleaning windows or monitoring traffic; and, of course, watching us.”
However, there may be a sting in the tail of the D-word. Do we want a world in which drones fly over our garden walls without permission, photographing whatever their digital cameras behold, beaming the images around the world via a server which might be in a country with non-existent reputational and privacy laws? And even if we give our consent to a drone arriving at our front door and delivering our shopping, do we agree that it can record whatever it sees, for so-called ‘marketing’ purposes or ‘to improve customer service’?
The publication of images taken indiscriminately from the air is not an entirely new issue; concerns have long been raised about the privacy implications of Google Earth. However, the growth in popularity of drones takes this type of concern to a whole new level.
Already we have seen how drones have become a new tool for the paparrazi in trying to grab an exclusive shot: they were deployed at Tina Turner’s wedding in Switzerland last year. But have existing laws kept up with the new-found accessibility of drones to large numbers of people, who may wish to use them in intrusive and alarming ways? To a certain extent, yes – this kind of use, where images are published by easily identifiable media organisations, is likely to be covered by existing privacy laws. But there may be problems of enforcement. How can we be sure who is responsible for flying a drone? If we can’t identify who has set the drone on its course, applying for an injunction or taking other legal action won’t be easy. That said, if someone in the public eye finds themselves the target of drone activity, steps can be taken to warn the press pre-emptively that the publication of photographs obtained in this way is likely to constitute an invasion of privacy, and result in a legal claim against any publisher. Celebrity wedding-planners, take note.
Even if a drone hovers over your garden taking images which aren’t published – or simply hovers there doing nothing – its very presence is likely to be upsetting. In this instance, the repeated use of a drone, whether by a paparrazo or a stalker, may also fall foul of the civil and criminal laws of harassment. Unfortunately victims may again face difficulties in discovering and then proving the identity of the perpetrator. And although the Information Commissioner has recently issued guidance on the use of drones with cameras, purely personal use of such equipment is unlikely to trigger data protection laws.
It may be some time before drones fill our skies, but if their use does become as popular as Kovac and many others predict it is likely there will be calls for greater regulation – not merely due to obvious civil aviation concerns, but because our private lives should not be hijacked by the D-word.