Drones and data protection

A meeting was held with the Federal Office for Civil Aviation to discuss the subject of drones and video surveillance. We also attended a hearing of the Swiss Parliament’s Committee for Transportation and Telecommunications. We believe that there is need for a more detailed examination of data protection with regard to the use of drones and that specific rules or an authorization system should be introduced.

It has become increasingly easy today to purchase drones on the market that are not only very reasonably priced but are also simple to operate. Drones are remote-controlled planes, that are usually relatively small and, from a legal perspective, are considered to be the equivalent of a model airplane. If their weight does not exceed 30 kilograms, no authorization is needed as long as the "pilot" has visual contact with the drone. Drones are increasingly being equipped with cameras and are being used both for private and business purposes.

It is extremely easy to fly a drone and to use it to film a private garden, a building or an office. Video recordings can be made of places which are simply not accessible on foot. Persons may not even realize that they or their houses or offices are being filmed. In many cases, the people only discover the drones when the filming is being carried out. Furthermore, it is not always possible to ascertain who is flying the drone. Sometimes the pilots are unaware of the fact that what they are doing is unlawful (or even that they are committing a criminal offence), at other times they simply take the risk. The recorded images can then be easily published on the Internet, thereby exacerbating the problem of data protection.

Given this situation, we have drawn up a list of data protection requirements that should apply to video recordings and have published an explanatory document on the subject on our website. Furthermore, we have held discussions on this subject with the Federal Office for Civil Aviation and the Federal Office of Justice. We presented our views to the Committee for Transportation and Telecommunications of the National Council (lower house of the Swiss Parliament). It was agreed among all the parties that one of the most difficult aspects in relation to the use of drones was ensuring that the rights of the individual were protected. The Committee decided that for the time being it intended to keep the situation under review.

It is our conviction that the use of drones raises a data protection issue and that it needs to be examined more closely. In particular, we need to ask whether special rules or an authorization procedure may be needed, and how we can raise awareness among the general public regarding the responsible use of this technology.