Amended drone rules may violate privacy rights

The Civil Aviation Authority regulations in their current form do not include specific clauses to ban the use of surveillance or armed drones in South Africa. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

The Civil Aviation Authority regulations in their current form do not include specific clauses to ban the use of surveillance or armed drones in South Africa. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

Draft regulations for drone usage in South Africa do not have safeguards against the use of the devices by the state as weapons or to invade people’s privacy, activists have warned. The sub-committee in charge of compiling the regulations has said Constitutional rights will not be violated.

The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) is in the final stages of amending aviation regulations to include rules for drone usage in South Africa. 

Once completed, these will be handed to Transport Minister Dipuo Peters for promulgation. Soon thereafter, drone operators will be able to register and operate legally within a defined set of rules.

On Monday, the sub-committee of the CAA in charge of writing up the new rules met to discuss comments and suggestions received in response to draft regulations published in December last year.

The CAA had received around 180 comments. One of these came from CAGE Africa spokesperson Karen Jayes and University of Johannesburg academic Jane Duncan. 

The pair argued that regulatory amendments left loopholes for weaponised drones in South Africa, and did not take people’s right to privacy into account. Their concerns have been seconded by the Right2Know campaign, which sent a letter in support of the comments to the CAA last week.

“The UAVs [Unmanned Aerial Vehicles] are being touted as cheap and advanced solutions to disaster management and city planning – but as has been the case in the United States, drones have been introduced on the basis of the good they can do, while their more sinister uses such as surveillance and defence come into play later on,” said Jayes in a statement accompanying her and Duncan’s submission to the CAA.

Protecting privacy
The regulations in their current form, for instance, do not include specific clauses to ban the use of surveillance or armed drones in South Africa.

The importance of protecting privacy and curbing the mass surveillance potential of drones was the central feature of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Recommendations for Government Use of Drone Aircraft published in 2011.

Weaponised drones have already been produced in South Africa.

In June a Pretoria based company, Desert Wolf, made international headlines for developing a drone (marketed as a “riot control copter”) that could spray tear gas and fire rubber bullets at protesters. At the time, the company revealed that an unnamed mining company had ordered 25 such units.

Approached for comment on the civil society suggestions, CAA drone programme manager Albert Mtishini said that he could not give a direct answer.

“Inevitably, in drafting such regulations, there is the possibility that [the activity being regulated] overlaps with other areas of law. To safeguard against abuses, we will include a clause to ensure that drone operators comply with all other laws in South Africa.”

Duncan however points out that the surveillance potential of drones presents a unique threat that is not covered in legislation and policy in the country. 

The Protection of Personal Information Act protects the privacy of people’s information, not of their “physical” beings. Appeals to general law in South Africa are vague and insufficient, she says.

“There is a legal and policy vacuum when it comes to drones. Nor can drone operators be expected to become experts on constitutional rights and laws relating to privacy. There is a need for the regulations to be explicit in this regard.”

At an initial meeting on Monday, the CAA’s drone sub-committee discussed about 100 of the 180 suggestions which have been received. In the coming weeks, those who made submissions will be given feedback on whether their suggestions have been included in a second drafting of the regulations.

This article was originally published on GroundUp.

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