The privacy watchdog in France has banned the use of drones for the purpose of monitoring people during the pandemic and also by law enforcement as a generic monitoring tool. Some groups had been arguing that drone camera use since the pandemic was overly intrusive and an invasion of privacy.
The news comes in a story from The Washington Post. The news outlet says the move was taken by CNIL, which is the country’s privacy watchdog. It also reports that the development came as a direct response to drone flights carried out by the Interior Ministry, which CNIL denounced as “outside of any legal framework.”
Let’s look at what happened, and why.
Drones deployed during pandemic
France has instituted some of the strictest measures in Europe as a response to COVID-19. It even initially deployed helicopters and drones to monitor the streets and ensure that people were adhering to the rules. The drones were equipped with loudspeakers to broadcast messages to those violating the rules, and information picked up by drones – such as the location and appearance of suspected violators – was being passed along to officers on the ground. That didn’t go over very well.
But privacy activists feared the drone monitoring could serve as a trial run for more-expansive surveillance programs. The concerns prompted a legal challenge and a ruling by France’s highest court in May to suspend the practices in Paris.
In theory, the issue should have ended there. But privacy advocates say it did not and that France continued to deploy drones at protests – a violation of the court ruling.
The decision by CNIL — which significantly ups the stakes for the French government, as it applies nationally — comes amid a broader tug-of-war between privacy activists and authorities in Europe over how to police coronavirus restrictions. That debate has played out worldwide in recent months, as leaders and authorities in a number of countries were accused of using the pandemic as a pretext to expand their powers. But Europe’s extensive privacy laws have put civil liberties activists in a stronger position than activists elsewhere.
Drones on public radar in other European countries
France isn’t the only country with this issue. In a variation on a theme, Belgian police last month said they would be deploying drones carrying thermal sensors to monitor holiday gatherings in people’s homes. We can only theorize they were planning to pick up data through windows, as we’re not aware of thermal sensors so sensitive they could discern whether indoor gatherings were taking place.
But the prospect alone of using drones in this fashion really bothered some people. As a result, a ruling was made that drones could not be used for his purpose in Belgium, though they would still be permitted to monitor outdoor public gatherings from a sufficient distance where they could gather overall data but not identify individuals.
Data versus privacy isn’t simple
This is a sticky issue, as you might guess. On the one hand, authorities want to be able to deploy any effective tool to assist with gathering relevant data. On the other, individuals should be protected from what might be deemed an unreasonable invasion of privacy.
But who determines that? And what is reasonable or unreasonable in the face of a broader public health threat?
This isn’t France’s first run-in with pandemic privacy
During the summer, the transit authority in Paris abandoned an effort that was using AI-equipped cameras to determine whether transit riders were wearing masks. At the time, that same privacy watchdog denounced the move. CNIL said it had “a feeling of general surveillance among citizens” that could “undermine the proper functioning of our democratic society.”
Drones are powerful tools that have been effectively used in other scenarios since the pandemic began. They have been used to deliver COVID-19 testing supplies and medications – and are even now being deployed to disinfect stadiums.
But should they be allowed to hover near your home?
Not on a fishing expedition. If law enforcement has sufficient evidence that someone is violating the rules, they go in and lay charges. But people should have the right to assume, as most of us do, that when we are in our own homes, we’re in our castle.
As for monitoring in public places? Well, we already live in a world where each of us is monitored nearly constantly by security cameras, red light cameras, or CCTV of some sort. That doesn’t mean we’d welcome drones as a layer of surveillance…but we can see situations, at least during the pandemic, when they might be justified.
However, the issue around drones and privacy is one that’s here to stay. And with AI-enhanced drones now capable of very effectively tracking individuals, it’s important to have legislation that fairly balances the public interest…with your rights as a private citizen.