Something in the Air

07 October 2015

This year the Unmanned Aerial Device (UAD) or drone, as it is more commonly known, will be the must have gift for Christmas. With the price of drones starting from as little as £35 these devices are no longer the preserve of the tech geek or hobbyist but are becoming increasingly mainstream. As a result, those of us hoping for something else this Christmas cannot afford to ignore the issues that are raised by our ever more crowded skies.

As well as being purchased by growing numbers of amateur enthusiasts, drones are being recognised by companies for their practical and commercial use. The number of drones being used commercially has soared in the last year, whether it be for crop monitoring in agriculture or analysing pipelines in the oil and gas industry. In July this year Facebook revealed their Aquila solar-powered drone, which aims to provide Internet access to large rural areas.

Aside from the safety and security implications of drones, which hit the headlines this year when several British airports – including Heathrow – reported incidents of drones getting dangerously close to planes during take-off and landing, drones also pose a clear and present threat to privacy.

This week it was reported that a woman in Devon was shocked to discover a drone with a fitted camera hovering outside her living room window. The woman is not alone in having her privacy intruded upon by a UAD whilst being at home. In California paparazzi photographers have taken to using UADs to take photos of celebrities from afar. Businesses are having to address the prospect of UADs flying over their properties to gain commercial or an espionage advantage. Even the world’s most powerful figures cannot escape. In January a drone crashed onto the grounds of the White House and in April a drone landed on the roof of the Japanese prime minister’s office. Just last week activists used a drone to film and drop anti-spying leaflets over the National Security Agency complex in Germany.

Even basic models of drones come with built-in cameras taking 12 megapixel stills and video at the “1080p” high-definition standard. The ability of drones to hover and film means that any object under surveillance is now subject to episodic and persistent surveillance. From sunbathers lying in their gardens, to prominent individuals undertaking new house renovations, the chances of being caught on camera from above is becoming an increasing worry.

The UK’s Information Commissioner (ICO) has recognised the growing issues around surveillance and in particular new technologies such as drones. Indeed, recent guidance published by the ICO states that UADs must comply with the data protection principles. But in all likelihood, those who find themselves in receipt of a drone this Christmas are unlikely to know, let alone care about the implications of filming other people and their properties.

Alongside drones, one has to ask whether Father Christmas is also going to be inundated with requests for air-guns this festive season? But joking aside, the proliferation of cheap and ever more sophisticated drones may well be an exciting consumer and commercial opportunity, but successful businesses and prominent individuals need to take seriously the threat they pose and take note of what’s flying overhead.

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About the Author

Nick Brough

Associate

Originally a criminal defence solicitor, Nick’s skills are invaluable in the sensitive and unpredictable situations where clients face reputational and privacy threats.

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