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Law on flying drones over private property

The use of drones, also known as unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) or quadcopters, have increased over the last few years. The increased use of camera drones raises issues not only for safety but also privacy.

In 2017 alone, the number of active Permission for Commercial Operations (PfCO) – commonly referred to as commercial drone licences – obtained from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) rose from 2,500 to 3,800, a 52% year on year growth. This growth is set to continue as camera drones become cheaper and cheaper.

Camera drone capabilities vary but can include video cameras, microphones, GPS and high powered zooms. A major concern regarding privacy and drones is that they can be used to record identifying personal data (such as vehicle registration numbers) and/or personal data (such as images) of individuals without their consent. It is important to note if an operator has PfCO then this allows the commercial drone operator to sell any footage or images taken with their drone.

If a drone has a camera, the data it records may be covered by the Data Protection Act 1998 and/or 2018 (DPA) and General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) as there are potential privacy risks and therefore drone operators collecting, holding or using personal data or identifying personal data should ensure that they comply with their obligations under the DPA and GDPR.

Compliance requires, among other things, that organisations gather and use footage fairly and lawfully. The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) provides guidance to operators on their website. This includes only recording in appropriate locations and letting people know before you start recording.

All drone operators are subject to the aviation regulations which are enforced by the CAA. These include:

  • always keeping the drone in view (normally understood to be 500 metres horizontally and 400 feet vertically)
  • Keeping the drone away from congested areas (this is referred to as any area of a city, town or settlement which is substantially used for residential, industrial, commercial or recreational purposes’)
  • Keeping drones at least 50 metres away from a person, vehicle, building or structure not owned or controlled by the drone operator.

It should be noted that if a drone is flying more than 50 meters above your private property, it is unlikely to fall under this regulation. However, if a drone is flown over private property without the individual’s permission, the drone operator could be liable for trespass. Furthermore, if you have told the drone operator to stop filming over your private property, and they continue to do so repeatedly, it may amount to harassment.

If you believe an organisation has recorded, collected and held your personal data without your permission, the first step would be to contact the organisation in question and refer to their public privacy policy. Individuals have the right to access their data, receive a copy of their data and request to have their data removed.