Drones: Effective crime detection tool or threat to civil liberties?

Drones are fast becoming the must-have device employed by regulators in the detection of crime. However, are they always being used in accordance with the correct authorisation and in compliance with data protection legislation?

In April of last year it was reported that more than 20 local authorities have been granted authorisation by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to use drones for commercial purposes. Regulators are using this technology to aid their investigations and gather evidence in cases including the detection of planning control breaches and identifying those who carry out fly-tipping offences. The ability of drones to quickly capture information from places which would otherwise be inaccessible, such as rooftops or someone’s private land, is an attractive prospect for regulators.

A drone is also resource efficient and may accomplish a task which would ordinarily require more than one person, such as for the inspection of site. On the face of it, the use of drones for this purpose may seem like a positive, effective use of the technology, which could save regulators time and money. Such use, however, does have an impact on our civil liberties.

Impact statement

The ability of drones to see what would not ordinarily be visible to the naked eye, has the potential to interfere with people’s privacy. That is the view taken by the Big Brother Watch campaign group who have warned that drones could be used to expand the ‘surveillance state’. There is some merit to this argument. Drones offer regulators greater access to spaces than ever before. As with CCTV, it is also likely that drones will inadvertently capture information about individuals who are not the subject of surveillance. Regulators must therefore ensure that when using drones, they are compliant with data protection legislation. Regulators should have carried out an impact statement in order to decide whether the use of a drone is justified and should have a clear policy on their use which takes into consideration the potential for infringement.

It must be recognised that the use of this intrusive technology is open to abuse if strict safeguards are not put in place, ensuring that their use is proportionate. Not every situation will justify the use of a drone and there may be some scenarios where the use of such a device is inappropriate or dangerous, for example on sites where there are overhead powerlines and the risk of collision is increased. Furthermore, a regulator seeking to use a drone to covertly record activities as part of an investigation must comply with the requirements under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, which state that authorisation is needed to carry out surveillance.

Operated with authorisation

In addition to the aforementioned legislation, regulators must also comply with the Civil Aviation Act 1982 and the Air Navigation Order 2016 which mandate that drone use must be authorised by the CAA and operated in accordance with that authorisation. The regulations set out the rules on what height drones must be flown at and at what distances they can be flown from specified areas, including congested areas, organised assemblies of more than 1000 people and vessels, vehicles and other structures. Should a drone operator wish to fly a drone outside of the limits specified within the regulations, they must first seek authorisation from the CAA.

As the use of drone technology as an investigation tool is relatively new, regulators may not always be aware of what they must do in order to be complicit with the rules. Anyone who is subject to surveillance by drones should seek confirmation that the regulator has the correct authorisation from the CAA in the first instance. Checks should also be made that operation of the drone was complicit with data protection legislation or, if relevant, RIPA. Confirmation that the drone was insured correctly should also be obtained. Any footage obtained in contravention of any legislative requirement may be subject to challenge.

If you have a question about drone use by regulators, why not contact us today?