Next: “The Selfie Drone” – which laws apply?

– by Gry Hasselbalch

The drones are arriving. Not only as military devices. But as a new business model, a different way of conducting journalism and a new research tool. The tiny device will fly high above and with images add a new perspective that reveals a world of detail that would not have been possible from a ground perspective. According to the media and journalism scholar Kathleen Bartzen Culver presenting at this weeks panel “Drones at the margins” at the annual CPDP 2015 conference it is estimated that the US will have between 20.000 – 30.000 drones by 2020 and that drones will be a 90 billion dollar industry in the future. Evidently so called ‘drone laws’ and policies are emerging aimed at framing the conduct of people and institutions with the devices.

The panel, which was organized by the European Commission, and in addition to the journalistic angle on drones also consisted of perspectives from other fields such as biology and sociology, provided some great examples of how drones are used today to reveal human intervention in conserved natural habitats or describe in detail the constitution of crowds at public events. So far so good. Drones are devices, tools for professionals to add new detailed perspectives to their subjects. And it’s a question of transferring the legal and ethical frameworks of these professionals to the sphere of drones. The use of drones of course needs to be secure. Specific safety measures need to be in place. But the recording of people in public places from a new angle also calls for a review of privacy laws that might (might not!) apply in the sky. In this case drones could be approached as media that can (or should) be regulated just like any other journalistic product or research outcome. The only problem with this is that drones are not only tools for professionals. Soon they will also become personal social media devices. In 2015 the nano drone Zano will be launched ‘an ultra-portable, personal aerial photography and HD video capture platform’. Its target will be the “selfie stick-user” (the slogan is actually ‘bringing the selfie stick to new heights’) or more adequately put anyone with a flair for social media sharing. It is described as follows: “Small enough to fit in the palm of your hand and intelligent enough to fly all by itself! ZANO connects directly to your smart device (iOS or Android) via onboard WiFi and enables you to instantly begin capturing and sharing moments like never before”.  This adds a new dimension to the discussion of the societal frameworks of drones. There are for instance ethical and legal frameworks for the press and research institutions that might be (kind of) smoothly transferred to their use of drones. But for the extended selfie-stick? The drones will once again reorganize our physical, social and public space, the roles we perform and the responsibilities we consequently get (just like blogs did, just like social media did and the internet in general). When the drone becomes an extension of the average person’s everyday life, their social media sphere, capable of viewing and recording everything and everybody from a new angle; when it becomes a new form of personal expression – how will we balance this with individual privacy? How do we define an ‘expectation’ of privacy in this type of space? If you for example crash another person’s drone with your own privacy preserving drone who will have the law on their side? Who will be responsible of misconduct – the drone service provider (with drone terms of conditions and conduct) or the drone controller? Which laws apply? Aviation regulation? Data protection frameworks? Consumer protection law?


  1. I work for a wildlife research programme and we rely on drones heavily. It may invade someone else’s privacy but we shouldn’t stop using it because someone’s misusing it.

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