The 2016 holiday gift guides have heavily featured consumer drones; as such, it is not unfeasible that you or someone you know will receive a drone in the coming weeks. In anticipation of that happy event, on 21 December the UK Department for Transport gave its own gift: a consultation paper on ensuring the safe use of drones, to help the UK to tap into this growing market.

The UK Government has ambitions of growing the drone sector, but as the consultation paper notes, there are significant challenges, including privacy. Many drones, for example those used in the new sport of ‘drone-racing’, come equipped with cameras, or can have cameras added later.

The principal concern in relation to privacy is that drone users are often unaware of the rules: a Civil Aviation Authority survey found that while more than 50% of actual and potential drone owners were aware of the DroneCode, only 27% knew that it contained restrictions on where drones can be flown and on proximity to buildings and individuals, and only 17% were aware that there are restrictions on how high and how far away you can fly a drone.

One goal of the consultation is to obtain ideas about how awareness of legal issues around privacy could be raised. The options include mandating that the DroneCode or other guidance be packaged with every drone sold, or even creating a test for leisure users to take when they start using a drone. From the privacy side in particular, the Department for Transport will work with both the UK Information Commissioner’s Office and the Surveillance Camera Commissioner on creating accessible guidance, and ensuring that both leisure users and businesses are aware of how using drones can affect individuals’ privacy. From the business perspective, this will involve raising awareness of the CCTV camera guidance, since many proposed uses of drones such as surveying building sites, cartography and delivery of packages will necessarily involve the use of cameras recording individuals which constitutes the processing of personal data.

Beyond simply raising awareness, the consultation suggests that the personal data of drone users and owners may be collected and processed, in order to assist with enforcement of, among other things, privacy breaches. The consultation asks for opinions on whether drone users should be required to register their ownership. This is likely to exclude owners of small drones (those weighing below 20kg), but the possibility that all drones must be registered is not excluded, which may be cause for concern for drone users who wish to remain anonymous. It is envisaged that this register would be used to assist in determining the person responsible for misuse of a drone and would not be public information, although aggregated and anonymised statistics might be published.

In order to bypass the need to track down a particular drone to aid with enforcement, the consultation contains further questions about whether all drones should be marked with a tag that could be identified by a scanning device. This would allow an individual drone to be pinpointed to a specific location at a particular time. Not only might this assist with enforcement in the event of possible privacy breaches, but data on the use of drones in particular areas could be utilised to improve coverage of drone-based services.

The consultation closes on 17 March 2017. The documents and instructions can be viewed here.

If you are interested in the position on drones in the USA, you can find some recent updates here and here.