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Camera drones

December 27, 2010

Flying drones that take pictures of foreign subjects may sound like part of a military arsenal, but they're also available to consumers now. Consumer Affairs Minister Aigner has called the new devices a privacy threat.

The AR.Drone by Parrot has raised privacy questions
The AR.Drone communicates via WLAN with wireless devicesImage: picture alliance / dpa

They fly, take pictures, can be operated remotely and even come with an auto-pilot feature to land safely in case their owner gets distracted.

The flying miniature drones are marketed as the AR.Drone by wireless device manufacturer Parrot and have been available in German electronics stores since summer 2010.

But some German politicians are concerned about privacy issues relating to the toys priced at 299 euros ($393) and steered by devices like the iPhone and iPad.

"Even just by using the small, helicopter-like hobby models, people can quickly go beyond the limits of the law," said Ilse Aigner, Germany's consumer affairs minister, in an interview with the Deutsche Presse Agentur.

For example, if hobbyists or children fly the AR.Drone onto neighbors' property and capture images of them in their home without their permission, the photographs could already stand in violation of data privacy laws.

A more expensive flying camera drone used by police forces
German police have used pricier, more sophisticated drones to get evidence and manage deploymentImage: picture alliance / dpa

Legal grey zone

Laws currently exist that require clearance for launching unmanned flying objects similar to the AR.Drone, but they do not address devices of its size. Currently, objects that weigh less than five kilograms (11 pounds), do not reach an altitude of more than 30 meters and are not used commercially are not in need of clearance.

"Exactly where the line is between illegal and legal uses of these cameras remains a question of legal interpretation," a spokesman from the Federal Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection told Deutsche Welle.

"There is no law that states in clear terms how these devices are permitted to be used, so it's a new legal issue," he added.

While everyday street-level photographs generated by the objects are likely unproblematic, the question remains open as to exactly which uses are prohibited under current laws.

Consumer Affairs Minister Ilse Aigner
Ilse Aigner believes in caution as drones become more widespread among civiliansImage: picture alliance / dpa

Smaller and cheaper

Politicians from the Left Party in Germany have called for legal limits on using the drone cameras, citing concerns about the future as similar devices become smaller, cheaper and more available.

"As the technology becomes cheaper, it's also going to be used more broadly," said Jan Korte, a data protection expert within the party, in an interview with the Deutsche Presse Agentur.

"People should not be able to use the drones to pry into the private sphere of others."

But there is not yet widespread discussion about changing federal laws to deal more clearly with the legal issues raised by cameras like the AR.Drone, said a representative of the Federal Commission for Data Protection and Freedom of Information, which advises the parliament on privacy issues.

Author: Greg Wiser
Editor: Cyrus Farivar