REMOTE-CONTROLLED drones that can record video footage are being sold in large retail stores, alarming privacy experts who say they could be used to spy on people.
The drones sell for as little as $350, making them increasingly popular with the general public, and worrying those who believe the technology has the potential to be a peeping Tom in the sky.
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Is a drone-cam watching you?
Drones fitted with video cameras are now affordable, available in many stores and simple to use. Video reporter Tim Doldissen explores how issues of privacy could easily arise.
Associate Professor Kevin Heller from the Melbourne Law School says the idea that private citizens can buy drones and record footage directly onto smartphones had serious privacy implications.
He said that while ''not everybody who buys these drones is a closet criminal … there are infinite mischievous possibilities''.
''It doesn't take a genius to imagine flying one over the neighbours' lawn and capturing photos of them nude,'' he said.
Australian Privacy Commissioner Timothy Pilgrim is cautious about the growing use of camera drones.
''It is concerning that this type of equipment can be easily purchased and used by individuals, potentially without any limitation on their use,'' said Mr Pilgrim, who recently wrote to the Attorney-General raising his concerns.
As Mr Pilgrim points out, under Australia's 1988 Privacy Act, private sector organisations with a turnover of less than $3 million are not subject to regulation, leaving plenty of scope for abuse.
The situation has been exacerbated by the growth in DIY-drones available from hobby shops.
Guided by GPS and tiny autopilots, hobby drones now have the ability to fly for kilometres, providing sharp video vision directly back to the pilot.
A spokesman for the Victorian government said the state was aware of the Australian Privacy Commissioner's concerns.
Victoria Police is also concerned that drones could be used unlawfully.
Under the Surveillance Devices Act 1999, people are prohibited from knowingly using an ''optical surveillance device'' to record a private activity without consent.
''There is concern regarding the use of these devices outside the law,'' a police spokeswoman said.
''There is potential for possible breaches of the Surveillance Devices Act where operators of unmanned aerial vehicles do not comply with the provisions of 'private activity' as defined in the act.''
In the US, some operators are flying their drones for commercial purposes, whether they be journalists chasing a story or paparazzi chasing the ultimate bird's-eye celebrity shot. Police departments throughout the US are already using aerial drones for surveillance purposes.
In May, Victoria Police confirmed it was assessing so-called unmanned aerial systems.
Harvey Norman stores began selling the Parrot AR. Drone 2.0, which can be controlled through a smartphone, late last year.
On its website, the electronics retailer says the drone's camera allows its owners to ''see more with the clean, sharp image'' and ''record and share your flying experience''.
Video footage and images can be shared instantly on social media such as YouTube.
The executive director of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems Australia, Peggy MacTavish, said people using drones were subject to privacy and public safety laws, including the Civil Aviation Safety Authority's regulations for unmanned systems.
''Our membership ranges from the multinational corporations … right down to individuals who want to fly for recreation,'' she said. ''Even if it's recreational there are rules and regulations that apply.''
Ms MacTavish confirmed that drones were increasingly being sold by Australian retailers, including at Melbourne Airport, and sales to private citizens were growing. ''They're everywhere,'' Ms MacTavish said.
Harvey Norman's general manager of technology and entertainment, Ben McIntosh, said the retailer had not received any complaints about the sale of drones, which operated with a limited range - ''at best 50 metres''.
''If ever there is a suggestion that these products are being misused, we have a responsibility to look into it,'' he said.
Bayside City Council mayor Stephen Hartney said the council had not encountered any concerns about drones, but rapidly evolving technology was ''constantly creating new opportunities that have the possibility of encroaching our privacy''.
''It is something that is very difficult to make laws against, let alone enforce. I think we all have to be mindful of each other's privacy and take responsibility for protecting what we value,'' he said.