The civilian drone market is taking off. Drones could revolutionise current services, open up new ones and even improve people’s quality of life, but will consumers have to give up a little privacy to reap these benefits or can good privacy practices help enable innovation in this fast-moving new frontier?
An estimate by PwC puts the value of business services using drones at £102bn by 2025 . Another by the Teal Group predicts the global aerial drone market will be £11.27bn by 2025 . Businesses of all kinds can see the competitive advantages that drones might give them – they can deliver packages, conduct surveys, produce accurate maps, inspect power lines, monitor rail tracks, patrol perimeter fencing and a lot more. If you include their terrestrial equivalents, they are also carving out a niche as digital assistants that can listen out for instructions around the home or monitor elderly relatives. Industrial processes can become faster, safer, more efficient and more reliable.
While the potential benefits of drones, the Internet of Things (IoT), connected cars and digital assistants are easy to grasp, it will only be possible to realise them if consumers learn to trust the new digital environment that is emerging around them. With CCTV, the cameras and a prominent notice are usually visible, and with smartphones, it is possible to guess when someone is recording. However, the sensors in IoT are harder to detect, and, being mobile, drones are similarly hard to detect. They may be recording personal data from high up where they are hard to notice, or they may physically invade people’s private space.
As businesses increasingly come to rely on personal data collected from drones, IoT sensors, connected cars and digital assistants, it is up to these businesses, the manufacturers and the digital ecosystem around them to respond to consumer privacy fears. They need to show that they are thinking about these issues, that they understand the potential impact of these new technologies on people’s private lives and that they have designed their products and services accordingly to mitigate those impacts. For example, connected cars or maintenance drones may inadvertently capture data that is specific to an individual, such as particular driving habits or video footage of passers-by. Privacy concerns could be addressed by aggregating the data sufficiently or automatically blurring people’s faces.
Organisations need to understand who is responsible for the data that is collected: is it the manufacturer of the drone, the business that uses the drone, or the other parties that want access to the data? They need to determine with whom and for what purpose personal data can be shared or whether it should be shared at all. For example, should the data collected from fleets of delivery drones be made available to local town planning authorities or researchers to build better housing or infrastructure? Should data elements that may identify individuals or families, such as the ultimate destination of delivery routes, be stripped out before making them available? To avoid confusion, arrangements and conditions for sharing data can be set out clearly in an agreement and access to the data could be logged or even checked.
Perhaps most importantly, organisations need to figure out how to be ‘transparent’ when it comes to drones or IoT devices; how will consumers be informed about what data is being collected, by whom and for what purpose the data is collected, and who will have access to it, when there may be no user interface? The individual may even be completely unaware of the drone or device. Innovative solutions may be needed, for example, to make sensors discoverable or to establish common user-friendly dashboards or portals that explain data activities in relatable terms that are meaningful to people.
Drones are nothing fundamentally new in this context. They are just the latest frontier in the melting pot of mobile connectivity and the data-driven economy. Whether it is drones or any other new technology, innovators, developers and data users should recognise that adoption of privacy principles such as the GSMA Mobile Privacy Principles and good data governance practices can actually deliver better products and services, foster trust and, ultimately, encourage the uptake of the new technology.
The GSMA’s Director of Privacy, Boris Wojtan, will be exploring these issues with a great panel of speakers at a seminar called ‘Drones, phones and automobiles’ at Mobile World Congress (Wednesday 1 March, 16:00 – 17:30 in Hall 1, CC1, Seminar Theatre 2). If you are going to Barcelona, why not come along and join in the debate?