On Thursday, the government finally announced its much-awaited new liberalised drone rules, marking the coming of age for an industry that has for long struggled under unclear, and somewhat unimplementable regulatory norms.
And while virtual celebrations have broken out since the announcement of the new rules which also repealed norms that were implemented just some months ago—and were widely considered to be too stringent and restrictive—there is something that the rules seem to have given the fly by to: ensuring that drones do not end up violating Indians’ fundamental right to privacy.
Privacy shot down
Here are some facts: The rules nowhere mention the word privacy even once. There is zero mention of seeking consent from people before a drone is flown over them. There are also no prescribed mechanisms for an individual to seek recourse or damages.
While the rules do say that drone operations should be done keeping in mind the safety of people, they fail to delineate how this is to be ensured.
In contrast, the European Union has clearly laid down principles on secure drone operations. The European Safety Agency Regulation mandates that a drone operator carries out a data protection impact assessment in line with the General Data Protection Regulation before operations.
“Yes, the drone rules are extremely disappointing in that aspect wherein they have not accounted for how police and/or intelligence agencies may use them to surveil populations,” Anushka Jain, associate counsel (surveillance & transparency) at the Delhi-based digital rights group Internet Freedom Foundation, told Entrackr.
Queries sent to the Civil Aviation Ministry on Thursday morning did not elicit a response at the time of publication.
It is important that enough privacy protections be offered to citizens against drones simply because while in the air, they have the capability to capture sensitive personal data on people.
Lack of procedural safeguards and a problematic data protection regime
There have been several instances of law enforcement agencies deploying drones without seeking the required authorisations from the Ministry of Civil Aviation and the airline regulator Directorate General of Civil Aviation.
In recent times, drones have been flown over several anti-government protests. And when law enforcement agencies are allowed to use drones uninhibitedly, it means that there is neither publicly available information about the manner or purpose for which these agencies use drones, nor is there any transparency around the types of drones they deploy.
When that is clubbed with the wide-ranging exemptions afforded to government agencies in India’s imminent data protection law, things get truly murky.
“It is also important to look at this in the larger context of the ecosystem being built. The PDP Bill provides wide exemptions to government agencies and lacks much-needed surveillance reform,” said Jain.
A shot in the arm for India’s drone ecosystem
At the same time, the rules are expected to give India’s burgeoning drone industry a significant impetus. Gone are the piles of paperwork required under the old norms as the rules introduce self-certification and non-intrusive monitoring. The number of forms has gone down from 25 to five.
The rules now cover drones that weigh up to 500 kilograms as opposed to 300 kilograms. This could cover drone taxis also.
Another major provision is that the rules allow the industry time to come to terms with the ‘No permission – no takeoff’ (NPNT) protocol. A time period of six months will be given to drone makers to implement the NPNT protocol in their drones along with real-time tracking and geo-fencing capabilities.
NPNT has been a difficult architecture to implement for drone makers and it has been a long-standing demand of the industry to allow some relaxations to that end.
Tech industry body Nasscom welcomed the rules, and said, “this will not only usher new growth opportunities but will also enable Startups and SMEs to create innovative use cases and applications in various sectors like E-Commerce, Mining, Healthcare, Emergency response, logistics among others”.
DGCA has also ceded its control over drone imports and that has now been given to the Directorate General of Foreign Trade.
They also stipulate that drones present in India on or before November 30, 2021 will be given a unique identification number through the Digital Sky platform and will be considered DGCA-approved.
A drone promotion council will also be established to facilitate a business-friendly regulatory regime.
“The establishment of the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Promotion Council which includes industry and academia showcases that the government recognises drone technology as a technology of national importance,” said the industry body Drone Federation of India.
Surveillance ≠ Security
The new rules certainly seem to be as close as they could possibly get to the wishlist of drone operators. Coming on the same day as the news that Delhi is the world’s number. 1 city in terms of surveillance cameras per kilometre, care needs to be taken on the issue of individual privacy, which is increasingly being sacrificed at the altar of public security. Surveillance doesn’t necessarily mean security.