Common-sense regulation on drones can protect both privacy and encourage innovation
Now that the privacy commissioner has taken the initiative, the government should consider a consultation on balancing privacy and wider community interests
The spread of civilian drones sparks all the concerns for air safety raised by radio-controlled model aircraft and for privacy raised by closed circuit television. This prompted regulation of operations to safeguard aviation and led the privacy watchdog to adapt guidelines for CCTV and for drones equipped with cameras, because the threats to privacy are comparable.
Since drones can film secretly while being controlled by computers or by remote pilots, regulators can be tempted to apply the letter of the law to protect privacy. However, while air safety is non-negotiable, the social and economic benefits of drones, such as land survey, weather prediction and fire-fighting, and their role in developing innovation and emerging technologies, have to be reconciled with protection of privacy so that it does not become unduly obstructive.
It is good to see Privacy Commissioner Stephen Wong Kai-yee adopt this position. This comes as Shenzhen drone-maker DJI opened its first store in Hong Kong, which is expected to stimulate interest in drones and expand the 5,000-strong base of local users. Signalling a business friendly approach with “fair enforcement” that takes into account the intention and spirit of legislation, Wong said privacy watchdogs should not try to curb creative or commercial activities or innovation unnecessarily.
Commercial drone users know they cannot be flown within 5km of airports or 50 metres of people or buildings, and recreational drones are restricted to coastlines. But technology law specialists question whether users are aware of responsibility for privacy. Mark Parsons, a Hong Kong-based partner at law firm Hogan Lovells, says innovation and data protection are equally important to Hong Kong, which lags the US in updating drone regulations. Now that the privacy commissioner has taken the initiative, the government should consider a consultation on balancing privacy and wider community interests. Drones are increasingly a part of commercial life, embracing innovation and creativity that lie at the heart of Hong Kong’s future.