UAS fitted with cameras are capable of recording or taking images whilst airborne.

EU Data Protection Law and Domestic Exemption Refresher

Under the EU Data Protection Directive[1], the term “personal data” is defined as any information relating to a living individual who can be identified, directly or indirectly, “in particular by reference to an identification number or to one or more factors specific to his physical, physiological, mental, economic, cultural or social identity”. Typically, this means that recognisable images of individuals captured by video or photograph systems embedded in UAS qualify as personal data (direct identification). The same would be true for instance if the images would just record vehicle registration marks but would then cross reference the collected information with other databases to identify individuals (indirect identification). In both cases, UAS pilots and clients of UAS operator services become subject to the relevant Member State’s data protection law.

To avoid being caught by Member States’ data protection law, many UAS pilots, especially hobbyists, have for a long time benefitted from a so-called domestic exemption provided in the EU Data Protection Directive. It applies when photographs or videos are captured/processed by a pilot who is acting as an individual (not in his professional capacity) only for the purposes of his personal, family or household affairs. In such circumstances, none of the EU data protection requirements apply and the pilot is free to go.

The above exemption was clearly recognised by many Member State Data Protection Authorities, including the UK Data Protection Authority (ICO) in its CCTV guidelines[2]: “A distinction should be drawn between those individuals who can be considered as ‘hobbyists’ and are therefore generally using their device for domestic purposes, and those individuals or organisations who use the device for professional or commercial purposes. Where UAS are used for non-domestic purposes, operators will need to comply with data protection obligations and it will be good practice for domestic users to be aware of the potential privacy intrusion which the use of UAS can cause to make sure they’re used in a responsible manner.

A Recent Court of Justice of the European Union (“CJEU”) Decision Changes the Domestic Exemption Landscape

However, since December 2014, a CCTV related decision[3] from the CJEU (i.e. the highest court within the EU) seriously narrows this exemption. In this case, a Czech resident had decided to install a camera at his family home. The camera was installed in a fixed position and recorded the entrance to his home, the public footpath and the entrance to the house opposite. A few days after the installation, one of the windows of the property was broken and the camera made it possible to identify two suspects. One of the suspects sought clarification from the Czech Data Protection Authority as to whether or not the use of the camera was lawful under Czech data protection law. The answer from the Czech regulator was negative. The owner of the property appealed to the Supreme Administrative Court of the Czech Republic arguing that his use of the CCTV was exempt under the domestic exemption. The Supreme Administrative Court referred the question to the CJEU.

For the CJEU, the domestic exemption only applies where the processing activities are carried out in the purely personal or household setting of the person who is processing the personal data. As the camera covered (or even partially covered) a public space and was directed outwards from the private setting, the CJEU considered that it could not be regarded as an activity that is a purely personal or household activity. As a result, the domestic exemption cannot apply and the property owner was regarded as subject to the Czech Data Protection Act.

This case is just another recent illustration that European courts and data protection regulators wish to ensure a high level of protection of fundamental rights and freedoms such as privacy. Transposed to the UAS world, it means that those using UAS with cameras to take or record images for their personal and recreational use will no longer benefit from the domestic exemption if they (i) collect personal data outside of their property or (ii) capture personal data in the public space or another private area from their property. In other words, if a UAS hobbyist was to go and operate his device in London Green Park and capture personal data, he will be subject to the UK Data Protection Act. The same would apply if a UAS hobbyist was to operate his device in his property but capture personal data coming from the footpath bordering his property.

Where to Go From There and Key Practical Recommendations to Consider

Starting with hobbyists, if they are able to stay within the scope of the revised domestic exemption outlined above, they will still be not subject to EU data protection requirements and are free to go.

On the other hand, hobbyists falling outside of the scope of the revised domestic exemption will join the list of other UAS pilots and clients of UAS operator services having to comply with EU data protection requirements (for details please see table below). Note that conducting a Privacy Impact Assessment[4] (PIA) and implementing Privacy by Design[5]will help meet these rules.

Click here to view table.