Surveillance Drones: French Judge Refuses to Ban Drones in Paris for Monitoring Social Distancing

Image: CDC/Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAMS

During the current Covid-19 pandemic, surveillance drones have been used by police departments around the world to monitor community quarantines.  The application keeps law enforcement officials safe while reminding community members of social distancing guidelines.  In the U.S., some politicians have objected, with fearmongering claims that drones are “spying” or “lecturing” people.  Elsewhere in the world, human rights groups have expressed concern that police surveillance drones violate privacy rights.

In France at least, the outcome of the argument is clear: a French judge refused to ban surveillance drones in Paris.  The decision denied claims that the drones collect personal data and concludes that their use is justified in the current crisis.

French language news site L’Usine Digital reports that surveillance drones have been used by Paris police since March 18,2020.  The French League of Human Rights (La Ligue des droits de l’Homme) and the Quadrature du Net filed a lawsuit against the use of the drones, claiming that images collected violate privacy regulations.  French privacy laws do strictly regulate the use of surveillance cameras, but there is no specific legislation that covers aerial imagery captured by drone. Drone laws prohibit flights in Paris without authority: but there is an exception for law enforcement agencies. National police may utilize drones if the circumstances of the mission and the requirements of public order and security justify them.  

The French Interior Ministry says that there are currently over 400 drones in use by law enforcement in the country.  Surveillance drones have been adopted around the world during coronavirus, in countries including the U.S., China, Italy, Spain, and the U.K.  Additionally, drone images showing empty cities during quarantine have helped to highlight the effects of the crisis.

The two organizations plan to appeal the decision in the French courts, in an effort to compel law enforcement agencies to destroy images captured by the drones.

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