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Drones – a Threat to Personal Integrity?

The Swedish Supreme Administrative Court (Sw. Högsta förvaltningsdomstolen) has ruled that drones equipped with a camera are covered by the Swedish Camera Surveillance Act [1]. The court stated that the camera drone can be used for personal monitoring, although it is not the purpose and that the camera therefore is to be regarded as a surveillance camera. The judgement means that those who want to fly a drone with a camera in public places are obliged to apply for a license for camera surveillance. Opponents say that the judgement jeopardizes a complete industry and that the use of new technologies, important to society, is aggravated.

To be able to continue to use the technology for commercial purposes, the Swedish Government has proposed a change in the law, which in principle excludes camera drones from the Camera Surveillance Act [2].

The Swedish Data Inspection Board says no to the proposal due to the integrity risks. However, the Data Inspection Board is of the opinion that permission can be given to camera drones, which are used for transportation of defibrillators, rescue equipment, drugs or similar, supervision or control of areas in connection with fires and inspection of power lines and also when searching for missing people.

The Swedish Bar Association is also critical and states that a general exemption from the application of the act is not proportionate to the risks concerning personal integrity, which such an exemption would imply. The Swedish Bar Association suggests that the Government shall await a decision until the investigation regarding camera surveillance has been presented later this year [3].

It is the Swedish County Administrative Boards (Sw. Länsstyrelser) which grant licenses for camera surveillance. The County Administrative Board may impose conditions on e.g. the places which may be filmed and at which time of the day filming may be conducted.

What about dash cams and cameras mounted on bicycle handbars? In a linked ruling, the Swedish Supreme Administrative Court has decided that such cameras are not surveillance cameras because they are operated in the owner’s immediate vicinity and therefore they do not require a permit [4]. The difference between such cameras and drones are that drones are remotely operated and are thus capable of spying on things that are otherwise out of sight of their pilot and they are therefore illegal without a license.

If you fly a camera drone without a license you risk to be fined. The Camera Surveillance Act also includes possible imprisonment. Furthermore, you risk to be liable to pay damages to the persons who have been filmed by the drone.

Many questions remain: How much surveillance do we want in public places? Is “place to which the general public has access” a suitable concept in the act? How will the new EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) be applied on drones?