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Beware of the drones!

Risks and opportunities of these new means of transport

They are the technological “pop” phenomenon of recent years. Starting from the original military use for spying and bombing, drones – radio-controlled aircraft with remote pilot ­– are broadly used in the civil field nowadays, thus opening the way to opportunities and risks.

It was 1916, during the Great War, when Aerial Target and the “flying bomb” V1 made their first appearance. Thus began the story of the “Unmanned Aerial Vehicle” (UAV), able to remain on the ground or to settle on a vehicle thanks to a remote control directing its movements.

Especially in the last two years, the drone retail sector took off. It ranges from the aerial video footage, to monitoring operations, to viral initiatives such as Amazon Prime Air.

New projects, as the first postmen aircraft, will start soon. Anyone can afford a drone: while full optional models require a real investment, basic drones cost just a few hundred euros.

The drones offer countless opportunities. Police forces have already used them in different fields such as, for example, the monitoring of organized criminal activity or emergencies when natural disasters occur, the assessment of structures affected by earthquakes or other disasters and the search operations for missing persons. Since 2011, the United States and Mexico have used them jointly to monitor illegal immigration.

Their use is regulated by law to avoid hampering air traffic or interfering with aviation positioning instruments, including radars.

In the US this type of regulation is promoted by the FAA, while in Europe the major step forward was taken with the Riga Declaration. In Italy, the National Agency for Civil Aviation (ENAC) introduced in July 2015 a second version of the “Remotely Piloted Aerial Vehicles Regulation” (APR), which classified the drones into two categories based on weight, providing different limitations.

All these regulations go in the right direction, but they are not completely exhaustive: in fact, there is not a specific reference in terms of privacy violation. Drones have powerful cameras, advanced sensors and sophisticated data processing capabilities. For these reasons, they could be subjected to tampering, hijacking or theft of sensitive information, as proved by the British company Sensepoint. Furthermore, the extraordinary shooting skills extend to the airspace the possibility, already offered by smartphones, to record a video in few seconds without drawing attention and with a consequent number of problems related to the processing of personal data.

While in Hollywood there is not a massive usage of recordings made by drones due to the lack of specific regulations, amateur videomakers make a wide use of them, as demonstrated by the shooting of the Concordia wreck, the poachers in Massachusetts (drones are very useful in the fight against poaching) or the abandoned Hashima Island in Japan.

At the moment, the main problem related to the domestic and commercial use of drones is represented by the great confusion under regulatory terms. This was also observed at European level by the Article 29 Data Protection Working Party, which in June 2015 produced a report entitled “Privacy and Data Protection Issues Relating to Utilization of Drones”. The adoption of a proactive approach to implement the concept of “privacy by design” and the introduction of measures starting from the planning phase seem the most viable solution.