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Beware camera-carrying drones: privacy watchdog

November 27, 2013  By The Canadian Press

Nov. 27, 2013, Ottawa - Tiny, camera-equipped drones — some as small as birds or insects — could evade Canadian privacy law as people begin using the increasingly affordable aircraft to spy on others, warns the federal privacy czar.

Model aircraft flown by hobbyists may be "left entirely unregulated"
as the federal government focuses on drones flown for commercial or
police purposes, says a new study by the research group of the privacy
commissioner's office.

In Canada, unmanned aerial vehicles — or UAVs — are
regulated by Transport Canada as aircraft under the Canadian Aviation
Regulations. But drones that weigh 35 kilograms or less do not require a
special flight certificate when flown for recreational purposes.

The study says the exception poses concerns
given that companies are beginning to sell small, inexpensive drones
than can stream live video to smartphones.


The privacy commissioner's office worries these
recreational drones could fuel the "growing trend" of people using
technology to conduct surveillance on fellow citizens.

Drones are often outfitted with cameras but can also carry gizmos such as thermal imaging devices and licence plate readers.

Aside from military and police
applications, drones might soon be used for everything from filming
movie scenes and digital mapping to wildlife management and industrial
espionage, the study says.

The RCMP has begun experimenting with small,
helicopter-like drones that fit in the trunk of a car for chores such as
photographing accident scenes.

But the devices come even smaller. So-called
"biomimetic" drones are made to resemble plants, animals or birds. And
portable ones are becoming easier to buy.

"Drones are already being sold in many retail
stores," the study notes. "The next generation of recreational drones
could prove to be even smaller and cheaper than the ones that currently

Among the technologies that can be mounted on drones:

— high-powered zoom lenses;

— night vision, infrared and detail-enhancing capabilities;

— radar that can track people inside buildings or through clouds or dense foliage;

— video software that can recognize specific people, events or objects and flag movements or changes in routine as suspicious;

— distributed video, where several drones work in synch with multiple video cameras.

"Some of these technologies have the ability to
capture data from great distances and through walls, and with a fine
level of detail, for example the ability to capture the image of a
person's face from miles away."

The study concludes that drone operations
involving surveillance of people would be covered by "the same privacy
law requirements" as any other data collection practice.

However, it says organizations
using drones will be expected to "genuinely address" the privacy
implications of their use and ensure compliance with laws and

"Furthermore, the advent of the smartphone has
made model aircraft, and other such tools for surveillance, data or
image capture, a plausible option for recreational use by the public,"
the study says.

"The collection or use of personal information
via model aircraft for personal purposes may reach beyond the scope of
privacy law."

So far, there has been no indication that drones
are being used in Canada for general surveillance or to gather personal
information, the study adds.

But that could change as more of the devices take to the skies.

"It is conceivable that society's expectations
of privacy in public could seriously erode if drone use for surveillance
activities or any sort of data collection or tracking could become
normalized over time as an accepted interference in our lives."


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