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Drones pose growing privacy risk: report

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A drone comes in for landing.

A drone comes in for landing.

Let's imagine celebrities X and Y are engaging in private recreational activity in their backyard when a small surveillance drone flies over them.

Before they know it, the images it captures are posted on the net.

So what redress could X and Y have against this grievous breach of their privacy?

The answer is not much, a federal parliamentary committee has found.

It says the existing complexity of privacy law and the difficulty of regulating the emerging technology are creating challenges which need to be considered.

"Remotely-piloted aircraft have the potential to pose a serious threat to Australians' privacy," the committee's report tabled on Monday said, adding the situation was not helped by the complexity of Australian privacy law.

The House of Representative committee chairman, Nationals MP George Christensen, said the drone industry was growing rapidly and Australians needed to be protected from "malicious drone use" while permitting the dynamic new industry to grow.

Concerns weren't about military use of drones but the growing civil use for journalism, cinematography, policing, emergency services, mining, agriculture and scientific research and also recreational use.

"Drones are coming - the technology is here and it is only a matter of time before they become widespread,' Mr Christensen said.

"Drones will revolutionise some industries, with a wide range of beneficial uses. All the same, we must set out clear rules that govern how the police, governments, businesses and members of the public use drones."

Already there have been some problems.

In October 2013, a small recreational drone crashed onto the Sydney Harbour bridge railway after its operator, British man Edward Prescott - who was in Sydney as part of the support crew for US singer Rihanna's Australia tour - lost control.

He was later fined $800 by the aviation regulator CASA.

In February the Australian Lot Feeders Association complained about NSW Animal Liberation flying drones over farms to capture video footage of alleged animal cruelty.

In March, a rescue helicopter  had to take evasive action to avoid a remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) in Newcastle. An investigation failed to find the operator of that drone.

In April, a quadcopter filming a triathlon in Western Australia crashed into one of the competitors. Its operators have since been referred to the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions by CASA to decide whether there is reasonable evidence to prosecute. 

The lower house report says the many gaps in privacy law could be addressed by the creation of a civil wrong, a proposal now being considered by the Australian Law Reform Commission.

Then there's education.

As it stands now, commercial RPA use is regulated by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority but recreational use is governed by the same regulations covering model aircraft. That includes a requirement not to fly near airports.

CASA has reached an agreement with RPA retailers to provide new operators with a pamphlet setting out the rules. The committee suggested the pamphlets be expanded to entreat RPA operators not to spy on private activities.

A spokesman for federal Attorney-General George Brandis said the government would consider the report and its recommendations.

"However, the Government does not support a tort of privacy," it said, referring to the proposed creation of a civil wrong.

NSW Council for Civil Liberties secretary Lesley Lynch said she supported most of the committee's recommendations.

"Increased use of drones is a major and fast growing privacy concern," Lynch said. "Drones can be very useful in many contexts; they can also be highly invasive of privacy in ways hitherto not possible."

She believed there needed to be a "clear regulatory framework" encompassing the range of drone uses by individuals, law enforcement agencies and other public and commercial bodies.

"The recommendation relating to the regulation of police use of drones is particularly important," Lynch said, "[As drones] will be increasingly used in police work and as with other surveillance devices, it is in the best interests of police and public that there are clear laws as to appropriate use."

She said with the exception of the creation of a civil wrong, the other recommendations would not be difficult or represent major amendments to current legislation.

"They should be acted on quickly," she said.

The federal privacy commissioner, TImothy Pilgrim, said the report provided a good analysis of the privacy issues associated with the use of drones and raised some important issues for further consideration.

"In particular, it confirms that, while drone technology can have a number of clear benefits for the community, it does have the potential to be privacy invasive," Mr Pilgrim said.

With AAP

16 comments so far

  • Apart from Google there are plenty of private mapping services that overfly most of the country. You can purchase high definition pictures of any ones back yard, better quality than Google and more up to date. Google has also purchased Skybox Imaging whose satellites can produce full motion video in real time in sub-meter resolution.
    The reaction to some over small hobby drones seems hysterical when compared to the amount of surveillance we are already subject to. This is the world today!

    Commenter
    saxon
    Location
    Melbourne
    Date and time
    July 14, 2014, 3:54PM
    • Yes, Big Brother has won! But most are too stupid to realise it..or care! This may be "the world today" but it's one that has been enforced upon most of us without any choice. I'm sure that many East Germans were told the same crap by the STASI. This is your world..the one that we have given you...now live in it...but we'll be watching you!

      Commenter
      PaxUs
      Location
      Austerelia
      Date and time
      July 15, 2014, 12:54PM
  • Interesting report...thanks for the link Grubby.

    I think the government really needs to get its finger out and make some laws and make them fast. The tech is evolving and rolling out very rapidly.

    Sadly I believe the average person is almost naiive to expect any privacy these days. The laws that we have are anaemic and cumbersome at protecting privacy. Individuals seem to only cherish privacy only when breaches of it adversely affect them or they become aware of a breach which is being exploited for someone elses benefit.

    I think the government doesn't have any case for doing anything under Recommendation 4 given the pervasive breaching of all of those things by multinationals and advertisers on a daily basis.

    Maybe we don't need laws on privacy but laws on informed consent instead. Unless you have permission...DON'T?

    We do need to protect our airspace from imbeciles and to create accountability. I think those that fly model aircraft would have more of a tangible sense of what is sensible than me. Not to mention the issue of maintaining control over your equipment (interference, hacking, loss of signal?)

    In order to establish accountability could all drones be registered by some kind of identifier...a build serial number linked to the purchaser?

    Very cool tech though. Love the idea of autonomous ones in the TED talk...wow!

    Oh...Robert Knowles in the UK was done ~$8000AUD for flying in restricted airspace near BAE systems nuclear sub facility (2Apr14)

    Commenter
    MattG
    Date and time
    July 14, 2014, 4:01PM
    • There are enough restrictions on drones (UAVs) as it is. Did you know you can't fly within 30m of people or homes? Did you know you have to gp through an expensive and drawn-out pilot's course in order to get a licence to do much more than hobby work? Why do you want more? People are getting a little too precious with their "privacy" if you ask me. If you want privacy, close the curtain. No bureaucratic weaving work required, and costs you nothing. Privacy & snivel libertarians, please stop imposing your agenda on other people's lives and spoiling it for all of us. If you want to rule like North Korea, move there. Australia is a free country, please leave it that way and stop eroding our freedoms with your hysteria.

      Commenter
      STOP THE ROT
      Location
      Canberra
      Date and time
      July 15, 2014, 6:57AM
      • Agreed, there are far more privacy intrusions from government and it's agencies than a handful of drone enthusiasts. My local council have access to up to date high definition aerial images that the public don't. They use them to 'spy' on illegal back yard constructions. Start looking at them before making ridiculous restrictions on hobbyists.

        Commenter
        saxon
        Location
        Melbourne
        Date and time
        July 15, 2014, 9:24AM
      • The risk is also one of accidents when untrained operators momentarily lose control.

        We need some protection against a drone colliding with a small child, a car windscreen, or even a light plane.

        Commenter
        Gelert of Birrong
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        July 15, 2014, 10:28AM
      • The answer to your question would be no...until I read section 3.20 of the report in the link which lists the constraints for hobbyists. Same as model aircraft...fair enough it would seem?

        Naturally in commercial applications they are more stringent. The drones are more expensive as well.

        Not everything about drones (RPA's) is bad. I can imagine IR or TI equipped versions might help SAR in terrain that is difficult to traverse (snow, mountainous).

        People do have cause to be legitimately concerned about privacy. Repeatedly we are witness to all sorts of technology growth that creates an opportunity for unethical individuals to exploit the increased ability to invade other peoples private lives.

        The Leveson Inquiry exposed some of this with the ease of phone voicemail hacking. The list of ongoing invasions of privacy where people have not genuinely consented is endless.

        Doing something to someone, using their image, not keeping their personal data private without them consenting is a huge issue...and by consent I mean informed consent, not just terms and conditions legalese.

        That guy Robert Knowles in the UK was stupid enough to fly his not only near a traffic bridge but over a secure defence facility.

        There have to be rules to stop idiots from using new technology like idiots. I don't won't to be on a 737 that starts aerobatics for fear of a man-portable air defence weapon when its actually being painted by a laser held by Jimmy the idiot who brought one back from a trip to Thailand thinking it might be fun to point it at the plane.

        Commenter
        MattG
        Date and time
        July 15, 2014, 7:41PM
    • And in other news, I'm taking up archery

      Commenter
      F
      Date and time
      July 15, 2014, 8:34AM
      • How about a very tall pole in your backyard trailing long lengths of fishing line to catch drones? Or maybe a Y shaped branch with heavy duty rubber bands a pouch and some marbles, eventually your aim will improve.

        Commenter
        anon
        Date and time
        July 15, 2014, 8:47AM
        • We need to copy the Japanese laws around public photography and private property. If land is fenced, it is illegal to photograph over that fence. If a person is the subject of a photograph in a public place, there is a public interest test in publishing it.

          It works beautifully.

          Commenter
          john
          Date and time
          July 15, 2014, 10:08AM

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