The DGCA must take urgent action against the illegal use of surveillance drones.

We wrote to the Office of the Director General of Civil Aviation urging for urgent action against police departments using illegal drones.

28 December, 2019
3 min read

Tl;dr

There has been a growing use of drones by policing departments across India. Quite often these are deployed across peaceful protests to record the movements of people and pose a risk to their privacy. They also may fly close to crowds threatening injury and causing anxiety. These concerns made us look more closely as to their legal framework and to our shock we discovered that these are completely illegal. We wrote to the Office of the Director General of Civil Aviation urging for urgent action.

Legality of Drones

Last year India has come up with an ambitious regulatory system for remotely piloted aircraft systems (“drones”). This was done under provisions of the the Aircraft Act, 1934 and Aircraft Rules, 1937. Under this legal framework the the Director General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) has been vested with exclusive powers to regulate the use and operation of drones (read more here).

Broadly under it, all such drones have to first be under specific makes and models which have been permitted by the DGCA. Secondly, they have to be registered as per the regulatory system. As per an answer provided by the Hon’ble Minister of State for Civil Aviation dated December 12, 2019 in the Lok Sabha there are only six micro and small drones legally approved by the DGCA. To our shock and surprise this is being flouted by police departments across India.

Violations a plenty

Yesterday during one of the protests in Delhi one such violation was brought to our notice making us write an urgent letter to the DGCA in the evening.

  • Fundamental right to privacy: These violations are in the nature of the use of the drone which is firstly deployed with a camera by the Delhi Police. To our preliminary analysis this would ordinarily conflict with the constitutional right to privacy as laid down by the Supreme Court. It is important to consider that the privacy right under the judgement applies even in public spaces. Such acts of mass surveillance need to be done only on the basis of legality, necessity and proportionality.
  • Violation of DGCA Rules: Second and more worryingly it seems that the use of such drones is beyond the permitted categories, makes and models as permitted by the DGCA. Notably, the Delhi police has been found to be using drones manufactured by DJI systems (specifically DJI Phantom) which are beyond these permitted categories as per the Reply to Question No. 356 as referred above.

Based on these violations we swung into action and have written to the DGCA. We demand for a cease to the use of drones by police departments, an independent legal opinion and their subsequent confiscation. We are thankful to Srinivas Kodali for helping us provide inputs and prompting us to take rapid action.

Even more broadly, this again underscores why a comprehensive data protection law with surveillance reforms is an urgent need for India today. Unfortunately the existing draft data protection has wide exemptions and poorly protects you. We have a better model over at #SaveOurPrivacy which has been used twice by Member's of Parliament to file private members bills.

Important Documents

  1. Notice to the DGCA dated Decemeber 27, 2019 (link)
  2. Reply to Starred Question No. 356 in the Lok Sabha dated December 12, 2019 (link)
  3. Civil Aviation Requirements (CAR) issued on August 27, 2018 governing remotely piloted aircraft systems (link)

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