Date: June 10 2012
Even in Australia, whose citizens enjoy freedoms that the majority of the world's people must envy, retaining a reasonable balance between freedom and appropriate surveillance is a constant challenge.
Civil liberties organisations are constantly on the alert for changes by officialdom that in their somewhat jaundiced outlook threaten individual liberties. But civil liberties organisations often give the impression they are much less concerned about the intrusion on individual liberties by crooks and shonks.
So it was recently when Victorian police proposed the use of drones or pilotless aircraft for surveillance. The president of Liberty Victoria, Spencer Zifcak, is quoted as being surprised police were interested in using drones. He said drones would significantly increase the potential for surveillance on political protests and private activities.
Perhaps they would, but that must be balanced with the potential advantages of drones, not least the opportunity to deploy these aircraft at short notice and at much lower cost than those with pilots.
Exactly how police, including the Australian Federal Police, might want to use this technology is not known. But an obvious potential is to follow motor vehicles being driven recklessly. Police are frequently criticised when they pursue such vehicles. These pursuits too often end in the loss of life.
Then there is the potential to use drones to keep a watch on suspected drug dealers or indeed any people police reasonably believe are up to no good.
Most methods of surveillance, including by drones, have the potential to be abused. So clear and accountable procedures must be followed whenever any method is used. But to oppose any method of surveillance because of its potential for abuse would be to oppose so much of what is already in use. Indeed, some people do oppose much of what is already in use. But the balance that most reasonable people seek is protection of their daily lives and, it seems, the great majority have little objection or need to be concerned by surveillance regardless of how it is being performed.
Certainly, there is more surveillance of our daily lives than 40 or 50 years ago. Equally, there are potentially more organised threats to our safety.
It is less than 10 years since there was an outcry against the use of closed circuit television cameras in Civic. It is not clear whether they are put to the best use, but they and many other similar devices in shops, public buildings, all Canberra taxis and buses are now largely accepted as necessary. As several Canberra cabbies and bus drivers can attest, cameras do not prevent all stupidity or violence, perhaps because they are now so widespread. But even the civil liberties groups which once opposed them would find little support if arguing for the removal of these cameras.
Assuming adequate protocols, there is no reason drones should not add to the protection of our communities. They have already been used in a trial by Queensland police for search and rescue.
On balance, and with reasonable checks, adding drones to present surveillance technology should improve our overall safety.
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