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COVID-Tech: COVID-19 opens the way for the use of police drones in Greece

In EDRi’s series on COVID-19, COVIDTech, we explore the critical principles for protecting fundamental rights while curtailing the spread of the virus, as outlined in the EDRi network’s statement on the pandemic.

By Homo Digitalis (guest author) · June 24, 2020

In EDRi’s series on COVID-19, COVIDTech, we explore the critical principles for protecting fundamental rights while curtailing the spread of the virus, as outlined in the EDRi network’s statement on the pandemic. Each post in this series tackles a specific issue at the intersection of digital rights and the global pandemic in order to explore broader questions about how to protect fundamental rights in a time of crisis. In our statement, we emphasised the principle that states must “defend freedom of expression and information”. In this fifth post of the series, we take a look at the issue of drone surveillance in Greece, and the legal provisions that has allowed it to emerge.

The COVID-19 pandemic has given rise to conventional and unconventional technologies deployed by public authorities across the EU to combat its spread. Some of these technologies have raised serious concerns as regards privacy and data protection of individuals. The use of drones for surveillance purposes is one of such technologies.

In October 2019, Greek law-makers reformed, via the Presidential Decree 98/2019, the applicable rules on police drones. The new legislation allows for the Hellenic Police to broadly use drones in policing and border management activities. We must bear in mind that before the adoption of these new provisions, the Hellenic Police could not deploy drones for such activities. Instead, police drones were allowed to be used in activities such as the prevention of forest fires or in search & rescue activities in the event of a natural disaster or in the aftermath of an accident.

A few months after the adoption of these new rules, in spring 2020, the Hellenic Police already managed to use them to their full extent, in order to ensure compliance with the lockdown measures against COVID-19.

A brief assessment of the new legal rules on police drones

The Presidential Decree 98/2019 consists of only one (!) paragraph and provides that the police may use drones to facilitate air support to policing, surveillance and transmission of information to ground police forces.

This information may regard various police duties, such as:

  • preventing and combating crime”,
  • tackling illegal migration in border regions”, and
  • controlling order and traffic”.

These cases are described in the law rather vaguely, which, in addition to the broad scope of the duties itself, leaves a wide interpretation in the hands of the police for the cases they may employ drones and the information they may collect and share. The Presidential Decree does not specify, for example, that drones could be used only to fight serious crime subject to prior judicial authorisation. Thus, the new rules allow for an indiscriminate and blanket use of drones for any kind of policing and border management activities, opening the way for drone operations even for petty theft crimes without any prior authorisation.

Moreover, it is highly possible that during drone operations, images and video footage of identifiable individuals will be captured. Given the indiscriminate permission of the use of drones, the state surveillance in public spaces is likely to increase and create a serious interference with human rights such as privacy, data protection, freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. Thus, such a use could lead to a massive increase in the capabilities for omnipresent state surveillance, and catalyse human rights abuse.

Additionally, the applicable European and national data protection legislation shall be in force when personal data are processed and form part of a filing system or are intended to form part of a filing system. However, the Presidential Decree 98/2019 does not provide any details regarding data processing activities related to the use of drones. Moreover, it does not provide any safeguards or specific control mechanisms protecting against the abusive use of drones by the Hellenic Police (such as the retention period of the data collected, information to be made available to the data subjects, records of processing activities, logging, designation of a data protection officer, etc.). Finally, articles 27-28 of the Law Enforcement Directive and articles 65 & 67 of the Greek Law 4624/2019 foresee that the Hellenic Police shall, prior to any processing activities that use new technologies, consult the Hellenic DPA and carry out a data protection impact assessment. However, the Presidential Decree omits any reference to such obligations.

The use of drones during the COVID-19 lockdown measures

In April 2020, numerous news media reported that the Hellenic Police would deploy drones during the Easter holidays to ensure compliance with the lockdown measures against COVID-19. In addition to this, in April 2020 the Hellenic Deputy Minister of Citizen Protection, Mr. Oikonomou, confirmed that the Hellenic Police aimed to deploy drones during the Easter holidays in order to ensure compliance with the movement restriction measures related to COVID-19. These drones were used in urban areas, such as Athens and Thessaloniki, aiming at monitoring population’s movement.

In April 2020 Homo Digitalis filed an official query with the Ministry of Citizen Protection requesting more information about this deployment and notified the Hellenic DPA on this regard. The reply to this query is still pending. Moreover, Homo Digitalis published a related report analysing in depth all the aforementioned legal issues and highlighting the serious risks that arise from the deployment of drones by the Hellenic Police.

Homo Digitalis keeps a close eye on the related developments. For example, in June 2020 the Hellenic Police announced a public procurement contract of 136.000 euro for the acquisition of two drones in the context of the project HEFESTOS (Hellenic anti-Fraud Equipment and relevant trainings for Strengthening the Operability against Smuggling), while a few days ago the Western Greece Region concluded a contract with the Hellenic Police in order to acquire drones for policing activities within the framework of the project INTERREG 2014-2020. Finally, news media reported that drones are soon to be deployed in the Evros border with Turkey, as well.

Read more:

Ban Biometric Mass Surveillance! (13.05.2020)

(In Greek) Homo Digitalis, COVID-19 and Digital Rights Issues (22.04.2020)

(In Greek) Official Query to the Ministry of Citizen Protection (30.04.2020)

(In Greek) Presidential Decree 98/2019 (25.10.2019)

Homo Digitalis

(Contribution by Eleftherios Chelioudakis & Antigoni Logotheti, from EDRi member Homo Digitalis, Greece)