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Drones a headache for authorities
Sophisticated unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) also known as drones or UAS are moving from the battlefield into civilian life and Australia is leading the charge.
Fairfax reported yesterday that air safety regulator CASA was struggling to get to grips with uncertified drone operators breaching safety regulations and causing incidents at Australian airports.
A certified Australian drone operator told Fairfax of having received inquiries from two paparazzi photographers and even an associate of a bikie gang who was investigating the use of drones to keep a lookout on a meth lab.
Australia has led the world with civilian drone legislation, but manned-aircraft pilots and certified drone operators, who provide aerial photography, news gathering and many other services, told Fairfax the rise of uncertified hobbyist drones threatened public safety.
Australian Privacy Commissioner Timothy Pilgrim said he was “particularly worried that this equipment can be easily purchased and used by individuals in their private capacity — the Privacy Act doesn't cover the actions of individuals in those circumstances.
“For this reason and because of the potentially intrusive nature of the technology, I think that there needs to be public debate about the use of this technology and whether current regulations are sufficient to deal with any misuse.”
Civil Aviation Safety Authority spokesman Peter Gibson said in an April ABC interview that some privacy issues around drones “really haven't been looked at a lot yet”, and while privacy falls outside CASA's area of responsibility “there'll probably need to be some debate at some point about that”.
Several law enforcement agencies around Australia are believed to be investigating the use of drones in their operations — following adoption by police in the United States — but none except Queensland Police would confirm this officially. Victoria Police hosted a conference in Melbourne this year with police from other states to discuss drone use.
The Australian Federal Police refused to comment on “operational methodologies” while NSW Police said it “monitors” the unmanned aerial vehicle market and “follows the trends in technology, particularly in association to law enforcement capabilities”.
Queensland Police said it was “in a research and testing stage to determine viability” of such aircraft.
But David Vaile, executive director of the Cyberspace Law and Policy Centre at the University of New South Wales, said everyday citizens could now access drone technology that was once the domain of spy agencies — and there was little oversight.
“The potential for abuse of these very new aerial technologies is presently unknown; [they] could be used by criminals, voyeurs or unscrupulous 'underwear sniffing' tabloid journalists to peer inside private homes and spaces without being noticed,” he said. “They are now so cheap there is potentially very wide use just around the corner.”
Roger Clarke of the Australian Privacy Foundation said organisations flying drones were failing to conduct the privacy impact assessments required. He said the use of drones was not justified in law enforcement.
“The very first 20th-century anti-utopian novel — 25 years before Orwell's 1984 — used drones ("aeros" ) as the means by which the government observed and repressed the population.
Professor Ben Saul, a legal academic at the University of Sydney, said drone use was spreading far and wide without proper regulation.
The Australian and US militaries have rapidly increased their use of drones over the years but the technology is filtering through to other groups.
“They're being weaponised by others including China and Russia and so on, and of course while America likes using them itself it's far more reluctant to see other states use them as well," he said.
“So ... in the absence of an international treaty regulating their production, their use as weapons, their sale and transfer as weapons, I think there is a legitimate concern now of them getting into the wrong hands and spreading to terrorists in the way that other kinds of weaponry has spread.”
Mr Saul said there were obvious human rights concerns particularly relating to privacy, and these concerns would increase as development continued on very small drones that, instead of carrying missiles, could be used by the military for surveillance or “poisoning people”.
“If these drones can be flown to places which previously have been out of reach of long lenses and satellite imaging and so forth ... as long as the drones don't trespass by flying into ... someone's building, it's fair game under existing law,” he said.