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French Covid-19 Drones Grounded After Privacy Complaint

Bloomberg logo Bloomberg 5/18/2020 Helene Fouquet and Gaspard Sebag

(Bloomberg) --

French top judges banned the use of surveillance drones by police to monitor public compliance with coronavirus-related restrictions, citing privacy issues.

The authorities’ use of drones to help contain the spread of Covid-19 “constitutes a serious and manifestly unlawful infringement of privacy rights,” the court said on Monday.

The Paris-based Conseil d’Etat ruled that drones with cameras can no longer be used until the concerns are addressed, either via a privacy-friendly law or by equipping the drones with technology that makes it impossible to identify the people filmed.

Civil liberties groups La Quadrature du Net and the Human Rights League initiated the legal battle with a lawsuit earlier this month, saying people were being filmed without their knowledge, and with no limits on how long footage could be kept.

“Drones surveillance is suspended,” the Paris police said, adding that alongside the Interior Ministry they will review “the technical and legal conditions to respond to requirements” set by the court.

Sonia Cisse, a lawyer at Linklaters in Paris, said the result will force police in France to be “much more protective of privacy rights.”

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The ruling comes a few weeks after France’s police launched its biggest ever procurement program for more than 650 small drones, which it had wanted to deploy next year for surveillance purposes. The Conseil d’Etat ruling on Monday will impact this plan, Cisse said, as France currently has no legal framework for the use of surveillance drones and the court ruling demands the state to have one, and have it checked by an independent privacy watchdog.

The Interior Ministry, which oversees France’s surveillance and security, is reviewing the court’s decision, a spokeswoman said. A spokesman the Paris police authority said wasn’t immediately able to comment.

“The decision recognizes the illegality of any drone flying low enough and being equipped with a camera that it allows the police to detect individuals, whether by their clothing or a distinctive sign,” the Quadrature du Net said in statement.

The country’s decision may be looked at closely elsewhere in Europe, where the use of surveillance drones has also increased. Spain and Belgium have used drones to monitor the public’s behavior amid virus lockdown rules, and German police tested them in Dortmund and Dusseldorf across parks to assess the need for a police presence.

(Updated with comment from Paris Police)

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