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Exclusive: Upcoming policy to require storing of drone footage which will be open to government scrutiny

Courtesy: Cyberabad Police twitter | Representational image

You’re reading it here first: Drone operators will have to store footage captured by their drones, which will be open to scrutiny by the Indian government, under an aerial photography policy currently under the works. This could mean that law enforcement agencies that deploy drones might be potentially required to store footage captured by them. This information was revealed by Amber Dubey, joint secretary at the Civil Aviation Ministry, during a call with industry representatives on Wednesday. The policy is currently being “streamlined with help from our friends in the MoD [Defence Ministry] and MHA [Home Ministry]”, Dubey added.

Dubey’s revelation came in response to a question raised by MediaNama over the surveillance threat that drones pose to Indian citizens, especially when they’re used by law enforcement agencies. We asked this question in the context of several instances of unregulated drone use by law enforcement agencies — such as over CAA protestors last year, and over the ongoing farmers’ protests.

According to India’s current aerial photography policy, aerial photography from drones is not permitted unless a clearance has been secured from the DGCA, India’s civil aviation regulator. However, currently, there is no need to store a record of the drone footage.

Terming privacy issues posed by drones as “sensitive”, Dubey spoke of the drone acknowledgement numbers (DAN) that the government has been handing out to legacy drones which don’t comply with a core requirement under India’s current drone rules. Under the rules, only drones which comply with the “no permission, no take-off” (NPNT) protocol are supposed to fly in the air. NPNT is essentially a green signal without which drones aren’t authorised to fly. Drones which are NPNT-compliant are issued a Unique Identification Number (UIN).

To get DAN for a drone, a person has to submit either their passport or Aadhaar. However, “very limited people” have access to the Aadhaar card number, said Dubey, in an attempt to explain the Civil Aviation ministry’s commitment to data security and privacy. “Even I do not have access to the Aadhaar card data,” Dubey added. MediaNama had, however, asked about privacy issues posed by the use of drones by law enforcement, and not about the privacy of operators themselves.

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However, when the government issues a DAN, it doesn’t check whether the pictures of the drone or the identity documents submitted are indeed accurate, Dubey revealed. “We don’t even come and check. We check later on a need basis; so it is a trust based system, a self-declaration based system, based on which the government gives you a DAN,” he said.

“We are very conscious of all the data issues and it will be completely taken care of,” Dubey added. “Anyways, we have basic rules like papa, bravo, victor — we call it people, building, vehicle. So, you can’t take your drone over people, buildings, and vehicles and you have to maintain safety distances,” he said.

“I mean you could possibly put some drones outside my bedroom and capture the things I do, so we are very very conscious of the destructive power of drones. You see so many funny videos on the internet which have been clandestinely taken from the ground, so imagine with an aerial camera, God knows what all candid pictures you can capture. So we’re very conscious, it’ll be ruthlessly struck down.” — Amber Dubey, joint secretary, Civil Aviation Ministry

‘More drones need to be brought under regulatory fold’: He said that to mitigate these risks, it is important to bring more drones into the regulatory fold. Once that happens, Dubey said, even the common public would be able to see drones in their area up to a certain level using a simple log-in. “So just in case you see a drone hovering, you can actually see if that is an authorised drone or not. In case it is an unauthorised drone, you can quickly capture [an image] of that and report it to the authorities and there will be an investigation done. And if it is an authorised drone, anyway it can not come over your property, unless you have given it the permission,” he added.

Where is the Digital Sky platform?

The Digital Sky platform, which is central to India’s drone regulations, is still not ready to support authorisations for NPNT compliant drones (hence the need to issue a DAN to non-compliant drone), and has already seen a number of delays. The previous deadline for its roll out was October 2, which the government missed, and it is also likely to miss the next deadline — set by itself — which is January 26.

However, Dubey said that even in the absence of the portal, the government has managed to keep hundreds of drones in the air, by manually offering exemption letters:

“[Deployment of drones for] All this, locusts, Svamitva [a large scale government drone survey program], hundreds of drones have flown, and all of them have flown via the exemption route. From our side, it’s a very streamlined system at the Ministry and DGCA, where just through emails — we don’t even want you to come to office, we don’t want you to send us any letters with ₹30 or a speed post, do it free of cost as it comes with no application fee. Just apply to the Ministry, follow a few forms and there are nodal officers in MoCA, there are nodal officers in DGCA who help you streamline it. There are various ways through which we are trying that the show must go on — the drone show will not stop just because Digital Sky is not working.” — Amber Dubey, joint secretary, Civil Aviation Ministry

Dubey also said that citizens can always use the RTI Act to demand information from the government about drone use. “Thanks to this great thing called RTI, for ₹10, you can open up my mailbox. I can’t open your mailbox, but you can open up my mailbox just by paying ₹10 under the RTI Act. So that’s the extent of transparency that India gives you. Try this in Dubai, Singapore or our friendly neighbour China. You can’t do that, you’ll be shot,” he said.

It is important to note that law enforcement agencies aren’t always forthcoming about their drone use, even in RTI questions. For instance, when MediaNama filed an RTI asking the Delhi police about its use of drones to monitor CAA protests in December 2019, we got a surprising answer — the Delhi police told us it never used drones for this purpose.

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MediaNama has prepared an exhaustive guide to the drone industry in India, encompassing regulations, use cases, concerns around privacy and surveillance, and the way forward for the industry. The guide is available here

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