Drones offer whole new candid camera

For the London Free Press – October 15, 2012

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Unmanned aerial vehicles may soon be collecting information on people living out their everyday lives

Unmanned aerial vehicles, also called UAVs and drones, are becoming more commonplace. They bring significant privacy issues because the vehicle’s cameras and sensors may soon be collecting information on people living out their everyday lives.

Unmanned aerial vehicles are aircraft controlled remotely by computer. They contain features such as cameras, listening devices or infrared sensors. The aircraft come in various shapes and forms, from micro drones capable of flying through hallways, to aircraft size high altitude long endurance drones.

The estimated $6 billion spent on drones globally in 2011 is expected to double in the next 10 years. Leading the demand domestically are government organizations requiring surveillance systems such as border patrol and national security agencies. There are 220 drone-related firms in Canada and 60 government organizations interested in drones. They also are available to the public. Anyone with a smartphone can easily own and operate a small camera-carrying drone for under $350.

The Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario recently released a paper entitled Privacy and Drones: Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. She states:

“Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) present unique challenges due to their ability to use a variety of sensors to gather information from unique vantage points — often for long periods and on a continuous basis. The prospect of having our every move monitored, and possibly recorded, raises profound civil liberty and privacy concerns.”

The commissioner believes the solution is “privacy-by-design.” This means that privacy features should be built into drones and their operation. The notion is that if privacy is built in from the beginning, function does not have to be compromised by privacy concerns, and vice versa.

This approach may overestimate the extent to which designers and users are willing to invest in features that protect the public’s privacy.

Some proposed features seem more feasible than others. For example, requiring restrictions to be put in place such as limited memory capacity or restrictions on an operator’s ability to adjust a camera are by their very nature detrimental to the functionality of the drone.

On the other hand, embedding the use of anonymous video analytics seems more feasible, since this software destroys information in real time, thus preventing its capture in the first place. That type of feature is more probable on drones used for purposes unrelated to individuals. But it defeats the purpose of those used by governments and law enforcement for the purpose of surveillance.

The focus on drone regulation in Canada seems to be safety, rather than privacy. Special flight operation certifications are needed to fly a drone in Canada if it is not being done for recreational purposes. The Privacy Commissioner recommends that preplanned drone routes be assessed for potential privacy violations. Depending on the route planned and the details required, that could either be a simple task or an extremely onerous, expensive one.

Drones with increasingly superior technology will continue to present privacy concerns. Privacy-by-design is an elegant theory, but may not be enough to prevent a surveillance-by-design world.



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