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Comment and Opinion

Are drones a threat to public freedom?

Translated Saturday 25 April 2015, by Sonia Govindankutty

Interviews with Laurence Blisson, General Secretary of the judges’ trade union and Francis Duruflé, Vice President of the Professional Federation of Civilian Drones.
Apart from flying over nuclear plants and townships...

Do the drones that fly over Paris and other towns pose a threat?

Laurence Blisson I wouldn’t go so far as to call them a ’threat’, but there have been instances when the law was broken. The decree dated 11 April 2012, pertaining to the use of airspace by unmanned flights, bans flying over metropolitan areas or gatherings of people. Besides, the city of Paris has been designated a permanent no-fly zone. In a document released in 2014 by the Air Transport Gendarmerie, 38 cases were listed when drones were used illegally. 8 of these led to convictions. We cannot ignore the fact that drones can be used for illegal activities, such as jamming communication signals, listening in on telephone conversations between people or even carrying out an attack. But in all likelihood, recent cases are isolated incidents of flights made by technology enthusiasts, and bringing criminal charges against them would be excessive. The present situation should not lead to an over-the-top reaction dictated by fear.

Francis Duruflé Drones include a large number of very different devices, ranging from toys sold by shops or online to made-to-order professional equipment. Their prices, too, vary widely, from 300 to 100 000 Euros, as does their weight. The threat posed by drones has to be assessed on the basis of their capability: reach and staying power. Just as in the case of general aviation, the capability to do damage (and therefore, of threat) depends on the type of equipment used. Today, the most common drones fall into the micro drone category, those that weigh less than 2 kilos with very limited range. It is these small vehicles that have been used illegally. As of now there are no reasons to believe that these flights are a threat. Not even for nuclear plants which are built to withstand an airplane crash. However, irrespective of the equipment used, professionals like us view every case of an illegal flight (with no security measures on the ground guiding it) made over sensitive geographies (such as densely populated Paris) as a potential source of danger. That is why we are fighting (in our own way) to ensure that such acts are not repeated. A technical malfunction would cause drones flying over sensitive areas to crash, risking damage to life and property. We have to keep in mind that professional flights undertaken since 2002 that respect laws governing commercial use of drones (for industry, agriculture, media, research...) add up to nearly 500 000 hours (with 1 300 operators registered with the Directorate General for Civil Aviation) without a single instance of physical harm.

Law enforcement, spying, how do we ensure that drones respect fundamental freedoms?

Francis Duruflé There is no doubt that very soon public bodies (police, constabulary) will use drones to carry out their duties, especially civilian security, fight against malicious acts and enforcement of law and order. Last year the National Gendarmerie announced their plan to acquire drones. There is nothing new in this since today aerial support to maintain law and order or to oversee vehicular traffic is provided by helicopters. Drones would just complement aerial support already in use. The use of images captured by these devices is the responsibility of the operator. Today every drone operator is subject to the same restrictions that apply to helicopter and aircraft operators. He has to be registered with the state authorities in order to take pictures from the air and has to submit periodic reports about his activities. In spite of the illegal flights that have hit the headlines, transparency is the order of the day for professionals operating the drone. The National Commission for Information Technology and Civil Liberties has already set up a task force to look into the matter.

Laurence Blisson The issue of protecting the fundamental right to privacy has come to the forefront due to this military technology invading the civilian sphere. Drones are bound to cause significant intrusion into private lives: indiscriminate mobile surveillance (visual and possibly audio) lasting many hours unknown to those who are being watched. A panoptic logic would then pervade both public and private spaces - a citizen knows that he is potentially under observation without knowing who is responsible for it. Private spying is another worry but it is already regulated by criminal and civil sanctions.

What needs to be democratically debated is the use of these technologies by the state. The judges’ trade union has always opposed the sweeping influence of technology that infringes upon freedom brought on by the advancement of video surveillance and militarisation of the enforcement of law and order. Strict controls are needed all the more since this technology is hardly limited to surveillance; there are fears that it could be used for attacks (using tear gas, for example), which is absolutely unacceptable. Just as in the case of other intrusive measures (phone tapping, bugging a vehicle or a residence) in every situation, the police use of drones should be subjected to a strict legal framework involving effective judicial supervision.

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