Drone Licence Plates? The UK Explores Regulations for Privacy

The UK government is considering legislation around drones, and especially the data UAVs can collect.

Joseph Cox

Joseph Cox

Image: risteski goce/Shutterstock

Although drones have gained popularity in the UK in recent years, regulation doesn't seem to have caught up just yet. Now critics have suggested that we may need new legislation on drone use, and especially around the data UAVs can collect.

Yesterday afternoon, the House of Lords EU Sub-Committee asked representatives from the Department of Transport and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills about the UK's current regulation around civilian drone use.

sample question on the agenda asked about the balance between stricter legislation and business interests: "The UK is already adhering to strict regulations—could further regulation end up hampering its future competitiveness?" The full transcript will be released by the end of this week.

But both in the UK and Europe, some feel a more pressing drone issue concerns the data government-piloted UAVs can harvest, and what that means for privacy.

The Independent recently reported on a legal opinion submitted to the Home Office, which stated it is "probably unlawful" for the UK government to "retain or use surveillance data" collected by drones, as this could conflict with the right to privacy under the European Court of Human Rights.

Critics have suggested that we may need new legislation on drone use, and especially on the data UAVs can collect.

The advice—which as an opinion only constitutes guidance—was commissioned by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Drones (APPG on Drones), which its website explains was launched in 2012 to examine the use of UAVs "by governments, for domestic and international, military and civilian purposes."

The APPG on Drones is not claiming that flying drones is illegal, but that the storage and use of surveillance data collected by them might be.

To use a drone for commercial or government purposes, you have to make an application to the Civil Aviation Authority CAA, which is comparable to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the US. Over 300 organisations have permission to fly drones in the UK, including a research division of the Ministry of Defence and the Home Office. This doesn't necessarily mean each of those has actually used drones; just that they have been granted a license to do so.

But the legal opinion suggests that data gathering by drone may require additional regulation, because some drones now have the capability to harvest biometric data, as well as shooting footage with infrared cameras, which have "left behind" the current legal framework. Data collected by government drone use is currently overseen by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) and the CCTV section of the Data Protection Act.


"We consider, on balance, that it is a disproportionate interference with an individual's right to privacy for the security services (or any other government department) to retain and use surveillance data, without any safeguards concerning its use, storage or destruction," the APPG on Drones filing reads, according to The Independent.

In other recommendations, the group suggests that 'licence' plates should be ushered in for drones, issued by the CAA, along with the "introduction of 'data collection statements.'" These, the group explains, would constitute "practical ways of protecting the right to information and data access."

Criticism has come from outside the UK as well. The European Commission (EC) has proposed EU-wide standards around government drone use, including "mandatory privacy impact assessments for each type of civil drone operation undertaken," according to the APPG on Drones website.

The EC also recommended that a system of cross-border information sharing be set up, for the purpose of enabling citizens to find out whether a drone flight will be taking place near them, and whether personal data will be collected.

Overall, policymakers are working to ensure that safeguards are in place to preserve people's privacy. That might mean updating the current laws, or adopting some new ones all together.

Legislation in this direction has already been enacted in parts of the United States. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) reports that Illinois has introduced a 30-day data retention limit for drone-data that does not constitute evidence of a crime, while Tennessee has a 24-hour limit on storing data that has been collected by a drone that details individuals or property that aren't the target of a criminal investigation.

Over in the UK, as drones start to populate the skies, and the amount of data they collect on citizens increases, the debate is just getting started.