Urban Unmanned Aerial Systems Operations: On Privacy, Data Protection, and Surveillance

On Privacy, Data Protection, and Surveillance

Eleonora Bassi  
Politecnico di Torino, Italy


The drone sector offers a wide range of affordances, opportunities, and economic benefits for society. Delivery services, agriculture monitoring, wildfire control, public infrastructure inspections, humanitarian aid, or drone journalism, are among the activities enhanced by unmanned aerial systems (UAS). No surprise the civilian UAS market is growing fast throughout the world. Yet, on a daily basis, newspapers report serious concerns for people infringing other people’s rights through the use of drones. Cybersecurity attacks, data theft, criminal offences brought about the use of this technology frame the picture. Nowadays, several countries are changing their legal rules to properly address such challenges. In 2018, the European Union (EU) started its five year-long regulative process that should establish the common rules and standards for UAS operations within the EU Single Sky by 2023. A similar timeline has been adopted in the United States, so as to provide the jurisdictional boundaries for the civilian use of drones. The United Kingdom (UK) and Japan are adopting new rules too. From a legal point of view, the overall framework is thus rapidly evolving. The aim of this paper is to give attention to (i) privacy and data protection concerns raised by UAS operations; (ii) their monitoring functions and corresponding surveillance issues; and, (iii) how a privacy preserving approach – such as with privacy by design technologies, organizational measures, audit procedures, civic involvement, to name a few – makes a lawful and ethical use of this powerful technology possible.


Article 29 Data Protection Working Party. 2015. Opinion 01/2015 on 
privacy and data protection issues relating to the utilisation of drones. Adopted on 16 June, 2015, WP 231.
Akkaya, K., Baboolal, V., Saputro, N., Uluagac, S., and Menouar, H. 2019. “Privacy-Preserving Control of Video Transmissions for Drone-based Intelligent Transportation Systems.” In: 2019 IEEE Conference on Communications and Network Security (CNS). doi: 10.1109/CNS.2019.8802665.
Bassi, E. 2019. “European drones regulation: Today’s legal challenges.” In: 2019 International Conference on Unmanned Aircraft Systems. ICUAS. Atlanta, GA (USA): IEEE, pp. 443-450.
Bassi, E., Bloise, N., Dirutigliano, J., Piero Fici, G.P., Pagallo, U., Primatesta, S., and Quagliotti, F. 2019. "The Design of GDPR-Abiding Drones Through Flight Operation Maps: A Win–Win Approach to Data Protection, Aerospace Engineering, and Risk Management." Minds and Machines 29 (4): 579-601.
Budinska, I. 2019. “On Ethical and Legal Issues of Using Drones.” In: N. Aspragathos, P. Koustoumpardis, V. Moulianitis (eds.), Advances in Service and Industrial Robotics. RAAD 2018. Mechanisms and Machine Science, vol 67. Springer: Cham, pp. 710-717.
Calo, R. 2011. “The drone as privacy catalyst.” Stan. Law Rev. Onl., 64: 29-33, December 2011. http://www.stanfordlawreview.org/online/drone-privacy-catalyst.
Cavoukian, A. 2012. Privacy and Drones: Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. Ontario, Canada: Information and Privacy Commissioner.
Clarke, R. 2014. “The regulation of civilian drones’ impacts on behavioural privacy”. Comp. Law and Sec. Rev., 30 (3): 286-305.
EU: Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. (2000)
EU: Regulation (EU) 2016/679 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 27 April 2016 on the protection of natural persons with regard to the processing of personal data and on the free movement of such data, and repealing Directive 95/46/EC (General Data Protection Regulation).
EU: Directive (EU) 2016/680 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 27 April 2016 on the protection of natural persons with regard to the processing of personal data by competent authorities for the purposes of the prevention, investigation, detection or prosecution of criminal offences or the execution of criminal penalties, and on the free movement of such data, and repealing Council Framework Decision 2008/977/JHA.
EU: Regulation (EU) 2018/1139 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 4 July 2018 on common rules in the field of civil aviation and establishing a European Union Aviation Safety Agency, and amending Regulations (EC) No 2111/2005, (EC) No 1008/2008, (EU) No 996/2010, (EU) No 376/2014 and Directives 2014/30/EU and 2014/53/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council, and repealing Regulations (EC) No 552/2004 and (EC) No 216/2008 of the European Parliament and of the Council and Council Regulation (EEC) No 3922/91.
EU: Commission Delegated Regulation (EU) 2019/945 of 12 March 2019 on unmanned aircraft systems and on third-country operators of unmanned aircraft systems.
EU: Commission Implementing Regulation (EU) 2019/947 of 24 May 2019 on the rules and procedures 
for the operation of unmanned aircrafts.
European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA). 2018. Opinion 01/2018 “Introduction of a regulatory framework
 for the operation of unmanned aircraft systems in the ‘open’ and ‘specific’ categories”.
European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA). 2019a. Acceptable Means of Compliance (AMC) and Guidance Material (GM) to Commission Implementing Regulation (EU) 2019/947. 9 October 2019.
European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA). 2019b. Opinion 05/2019, Standard scenarios for UAS operations in the ‘specific’ category. RMT.0729, release on November, 07, 2019.
European Aviation and Safety Agency (EASA). 2019c. Regulators and industry unite in need to address societal concerns on drones. Press release, 10 Dec. 2019. https://www.easa.europa.eu/newsroom-and-events/press-releases/regulators-and-industry-unite-need-address-societal-concerns.
European Data Protection Supervisor. 2014. Opinion of the European Data Protection Supervisor on the Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament and the Council on “A new era for aviation - Opening the aviation market to the civil use of remotely piloted aircraft systems in a safe and sustainable manner. 26 November 2014.
European Parliament, Directorate General For Internal Policies – 
Policy Department C: Citizens’ Rights and Constitutional Affairs, Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs. 2015. Privacy and Data Protection Implications of the Civil Use of Drones, In-depth Analysis.
Finn, R. L. and Donovan, A. 2016. “Big data, drone data: Privacy and ethical impacts
 of the intersection 
between big data and civil
 drone deployments.” In: B. Custers (ed.). The Future of Drone Use. Opportunities and Threats from Ethical and Legal Perspectives. The Hague: Asser Press, pp. 47-70.
Finn, R. L. and Wright, D. 2016. “Privacy, data protection and ethics for civil drone practice: A survey of industry, regulators and civil society organisations”. Computer Law & Security Review, 32: 577–586.
Floridi, L., Cowls, J., Beltrametti, M., Chatila, R., Chazerand, P., Dignum, V., Luetge, Ch., Madelin, R., Pagallo, U., Rossi, F., Schafer, B., Valcke, P., and Vayena, E. 2018. “AI4People - An Ethical Framework for a Good AI Society: Opportunities, Risks, Principles, and Recommendations.” Minds and Machines, 28 (4): 689-707.
Garcia-Aunon, P., Roldan, J.J., and Barrientos, A. 2019. “Monitoring traffic in future cities with aerial swarms: Developing and optimizing a behavior-based surveillance algorithm.” Cognitive Systems Research, 54: 273-286. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1389041718303279.
Grubesic, T.H. and Nelson, J.R. 2020. UAVs and Urban Spatial Analysis. An Introduction. Springer: Cham.
Hell, P.M. and Varga, P.J. 2019. “Drone Systems for Factory Security and Surveillance.” Interdisciplinary Description of Complex Systems, 17 (3-A): 458-467. https://doi.org/10.7906/indecs.17.3.4.
Hoepman, J.H. 2014. “Privacy Design Strategies.” In N. Cuppens-Boulahia et al. (eds.) ICT Systems Security and Privacy Protection. SEC 2014. IFIP Adv. in Inform. and Comm. Techn., 428: 446-459. Berlin – Heidelberg: Springer.
Kim, H., Ben-Othman, J. and Mokdad, L. 2019. “UDiPP: A Framework for Differential Privacy Preserving Movements of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles in Smart Cities.” IEEE Transactions on Vehicular Technology, 68 (4): 3933-3943.
Marin, L. and Krajčiková, K. 2016. “Deploying Drones in Policing Southern European Borders: Constraints and Challenges for Data Protection and Human Rights.” In A. Završnik (ed.) Drones and Unmanned Aerial Systems. Legal and Social Implications for Security and Surveillance. Cham: Springer International, pp. 101-127.
de Miguel Molina, M., Santamarina Campos, V., Segarra Oña, M.V., and de Miguel Molina, B. 2018. “Regulation, Co-Regulation and Self- Regulation of Civil Unmanned Aircrafts in Europe.” World Ac. of Science, Eng. and Techn. Intern. J. of Law and Pol. Sc., 12 (5): 498-501.
Mufford, J.T., Hill, D.J., Flood, N.J., and Church, J.S. 2019. “Use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and photogrammetric image analysis to quantify spatial proximity in beef cattle.” Journal of Unmanned Vehicle Systems, 7 (3): 194-206. https://doi.org/10.1139/juvs-2018-0025.
Pagallo, U. 2017a. “From Automation to Autonomous Systems: A Legal Phenomenology with Problems of Accountability.” In: Proceedings of the Twenty-Sixth International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence. IJCAI-17. pp. 17-23.
Pagallo, U. 2017b. “The Group, the Private, and the Individual: A New Level of Data Protection?” In L. Taylor, L. Floridi and B. van der Sloot (eds.). Group Privacy: New Challenges of Data Technologies. Dordrecht: Springer, pp. 159-173.
Pagallo, U., Casanovas, P., and Madelin, R. 2019. “The middle-out approach: assessing models of legal governance in data protection, artificial intelligence, and the Web of Data.” The Theory and Practice of Legislation, 7 (1): 1-25, DOI: 10.1080/20508840.2019.1664543.
Pannozzi, P., Valavanis, K.P., Rutherford, M.J., Guglieri, G., Scanavino, M. and F. Quagliotti. 2019. “Urban Monitoring of Smart Communities Using UAS.” In: 2019 International Conference on Unmanned Aircraft Systems. ICUAS. Atlanta, GA (USA): IEEE, pp. 866-873. doi: 10.1109/ICUAS.2019.8798310.
Resnik, D.B. and Elliott, K.C. 2019. “Using Drones to Study Human Beings: Ethical and Regulatory Issues.” Sci Eng Ethics 25: 707–718. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11948-018-0032-6.
Rice, S., Tamilselvan, G., Winter, S.R., Milner, M.N., Anania, E.C., Sperlak, L., and Marte, D.A. 2018. “Public perception of UAS privacy concerns: a gender comparison.” Journal of Unmanned Vehicle Systems, 6: 83-99. https://doi.org/10.1139/juvs-2017-0011.
Songsheng, L. 2019. “Wildfire early warning system based on wireless sensors and unmanned aerial vehicle.” Journal of Unmanned Vehicle Systems, 7:76-91. https://doi.org/10.1139/juvs-2018-0022.
Walther, J., Pytlik Zillig, L., Detweiler, C., and Houston, A. 2019. “How people make sense of drones used for atmospheric science (and other purposes): hopes, concerns, and recommendations.” Journal of Unmanned Vehicle Systems, 7:219-234. https://doi.org/10.1139/juvs-2019-0003].
Wright, D. and Finn, R. 2016. “Making Drones more Acceptable with Privacy Impact Assessment.” In: B. Custers (ed.). The Future of Drone Use. Opportunities and Threats from Ethical and Legal Perspectives. The Hague: Asser Press, pp. 325-352.
How to Cite
Bassi E. Urban Unmanned Aerial Systems Operations. LiC [Internet]. 2020May20 [cited 2022Sep.28];36(2):61-2. Available from: https://journals.latrobe.edu.au/index.php/law-in-context/article/view/114

Send mail to Author

Send Cancel