Coronavirus and Police Use of Drones

Man operating a drone at sunset using a controller

The police have an important rule to play in the current coronavirus lockdown.  However their actions must at all times be proportionate, transparent and (above all) lawful. Only yesterday, British Transport Police admitted they had wrongly charged a woman who was fined £660 under coronavirus legislation. Marie Dinou was arrested at Newcastle Central Station on Saturday after she refused to tell police why she needed to travel. A police and Crown Prosecution Service review said she was charged under the wrong part of the Corona Virus Act. The court will be asked to set the conviction aside.

This is not the only recent incident of the police overstepping the mark. By now most of us will have seen the story about a couple walking their dog in the Peak District. The video was filmed by a drone operated by the Derbyshire Police Drone Unit, and broadcast to the nation on BBC news. According to Derbyshire Police’s Twitter feed (which broadcast the same 90 second footage) the police force wanted to reinforce the government message of ‘stay at home’ and to point out this was not getting through, by effectively ‘shaming’ the couple who were captured on camera.

The video has sparked huge controversy from various circles including civil liberties campaign group Big Brother Watch and a leading member of the judiciary. According to the BBC, Big Brother Watch has described the move as ‘sinister and counter-productive’. Ex Supreme Court Judge, Lord Sumption, has also been very critical.
In BBC Radio 4’s World at One, Lord Sumption made it clear that the police have no legal power to enforce Government Ministers ‘wishes’ and guidance about non-essential travel. Although the government has enacted the Coronavirus Act 2020, this does not give the police any powers to stop individuals from non-essential travel or walking in isolated places. Lord Sumption’s criticism is most tellingly summed up in the following quotation:

“This is what a police state is like, it is a state in which the government can issue orders or express preferences with no legal authority and the police will enforce ministers’ wishes.”

At Act Now we are not able to comment on whether the police have the powers to do this but we respectfully accept Lord’s Sumption’s view that they did not. Our concern is whether the filming and broadcasting of these individuals was GDPR compliant.
Our conclusion is that it was not.

The use of drones poses a privacy risk. The Police Force took the decision to process this personal data for their own purposes (“to get the message across”). They are therefore Data Controllers and must comply with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in relation to this processing. Images of individuals constitute personal data where it is possible to identify them from those images (GDPR Article 4(1)). It is entirely possible that the individuals captured in that Derbyshire police video could be identified by their clothing, hair colour and the presence of their dog.

Drones can be used to film people in many locations, often without the knowledge of those being filmed. In these circumstances, the processing of personal data must be lawful (GDPR Article 5 (1)). It is questionable which Article 6 basis the police could rely on here. Arguably processing is necessary for a ‘task carried out in the public interest’. However one would have to ask why it was necessary to film and broadcast these individuals. The police could not rely on ‘legitimate interests’ because this does not apply to processing carried out by public authorities in performance of their task (GDPR Article 6 (1)(f)).

Even if the police could identify a lawful basis, the next question is whether this processing is fair. The ICO guidance states that Data Controllers should only process data in ways that people would reasonably expect and not use it in ways that have unjustified adverse effects on them. I would argue that it is highly unlikely that anybody walking their dog in an isolated part of the Peak District would have any reasonable expectation that they would be secretly filmed by a drone and that their images would be broadcast to the nation in an attempt to shame them. So it seems highly unlikely that this processing is fair.

GDPR also requires transparency when processing personal data. This means data subjects should be made aware that their personal data is being processed and why.
The ‘normal’ transparency requirements (usually the GDPR (Articles 12-14) are less onerous for the police when they are processing personal data for law enforcement purposes under Part 3 of the Data Protection Act 2018. However, the police admitted themselves that the filming was for the purposes of ‘getting a  message out’ and this does not fit easily within the definition of law enforcement purposes under S.31 DPA 2018. At best the police could try and argue that the processing was for the purposes of preventing threats to public security, but it is really difficult to see how this would succeed when it was just a couple walking their dog on an isolated stretch of path.

The police did not comply with the Information Commissioner’s tips on responsible drone use, in particular the advice about thinking carefully about sharing images on social media. The ICO cautions that drone users should avoid sharing images that could have unfair or harmful consequences. There is also little evidence that the Police had due regard to at least the first three guiding principles laid down in the Surveillance Camera Code of Practice or whether they conducted a Data Protection Impact Assessment.

On balance, the Derbyshire Police’s decision to film individuals taking a walk in an isolated area, in order to get a message across about not travelling unnecessarily was at best misguided, and at worst unlawful. The coronavirus is changing almost all aspects of our daily lives, and social distancing and self-isolating are the new norms. However, when the police take action it is still vital that they comply with their legal obligations in relation to the processing of personal data.

More on this and other developments in our FREE GDPR update webinar. Looking for a GDPR qualification from the comfort of your home office? Our GDPR Practitioner Certificate is now available as an online option.


Author: actnowtraining

Act Now Training is Europe's leading provider of information governance training, serving government agencies, multinational corporations, financial institutions, and corporate law firms. Our associates have decades of information governance experience. We pride ourselves on delivering high quality training that is practical and makes the complex simple. Our extensive programme ranges from short webinars and one day workshops through to higher level practitioner certificate courses delivered online or in the classroom.

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