Drones: An Era of Surveillance or the New Normal?

Drones can be used for scientific research A research drone in flight

Is corporate drone use on a collision course with public expectations for privacy? The answer all depends on an industry’s ability to manage expectations in the right way while striking a balance between its own data collection goals and social norms. With each new development in surveillance and communication technology, new questions emerge about the meaning and importance of privacy for individuals at home and in public spaces. Social media users are infamous for sharing not only their personal information, but intimate details about their lives online. Many smartphone apps are designed to track a user’s location, and make use of this information to tailor services to the user. Most city-dwellers accept closed-circuit security cameras as a justified use of monitoring technology, and often expect to be filmed when entering the premises of a private business. Now, unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly known as drones, have become the focus of yet another privacy debate. Drones, with their capacity to quietly infiltrate spaces unsuitable for manned aircraft, have policymakers struggling to strike a balance between respect for privacy and allowing businesses, hobbyists, and public agencies to reap the benefits of this new technology. This debate, like so many others surrounding the regulation of new technology, will likely be settled in the skies as drone proponents and advocates for privacy protection establish, in time, what the public expects in terms of privacy.

Transport Canada’s website is an excellent resource for drone owners trying to understand whether they need official permission to fly. Under current regulations, individuals who wish to fly drones under 35kg being used for recreational purposes may do so without any sort of licensing, but for most other applications, or for larger drones, a Special Flight Operations Certificate or an air operator certificate is required. All drone users, however, must obey the Canadian Aviation Regulations, a set of safety and privacy guidelines that forbid drones from being flown close to airports, buildings, crowded events, military installations and prisons, or anywhere where they might distract drivers or first responders. Commercial drone use is covered by the Personal Information Protection Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA), which secures people the right to know when they are being filmed or photographed, and to be informed of what their image will be used for. Collection may only take place when use of the image meets a condition of “reasonable” use, which varies greatly by context.

While most social media sites and apps ask permission to collect and use a subscriber’s data, it is less likely that a drone operator will seek consent when filming or collecting data on people or locations

These rules are helpful for keeping drone use safe, and when combined with the Criminal Code, can be used to protect the public in many types of privacy violation. Canada’s Privacy Commissioner also released ten “Privacy Principles” to help the public and commercial entities navigate the legal aspects of data collection and use. Accountability, clear purpose, and consent are at the top of the list, though PIPEDA’s low profile in public discourse makes it likely that few people are familiar with the law in this area. Even with these existing pieces of legislation, there still remains to be seen a comprehensive set of guidelines that incorporates both the aviation safety elements, and ethical responsibilities of drone operation in the public and private sectors. It is likely that in the coming years, such a set of rules will be determined largely through experience, as unexpected incidents set new precedents. Drones and their proponents may have a surprising amount of power to shape the outcomes of these debates, as do shifting public expectations for privacy.

A 2013 report from the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada (Privacy Report) describes drones as enabling “surreptitious, cheap, efficient, persistent, and agile” surveillance that “threatens to eradicate existing practical limits on aerial monitoring.” Not only can certain models remain in the air for days at a time while tracking an individual’s activities, smaller models can be left undetected in strategic locations to alert the operator if and when activity occurs. These far-reaching capabilities allow for expansive applications for drone technology, with one scruple: privacy norms.

The main difference between drones and other cases in which people share data is that while most social media sites and apps ask permission to collect and use a subscriber’s data, it is less likely that a drone operator will seek consent when filming or collecting data on people or locations, especially if the monitoring is not part of a service being provided to the people being tracked.

In the Privacy Report, the Commissioner cites the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s notion of “locational privacy,” defined as “the ability of an individuals to move relatively anonymously in public space with the expectation that under normal circumstances their location will not be systematically and secretly recorded for later use.” Drones certainly increase the extent to which any individual’s locational privacy might be invaded. In fact, when combined with other data collected at different points throughout the day across different devices, drone data could allow for an almost complete picture of that individual’s lifestyle, income, health concerns, travel, and patterns of behaviour.

With so few practical examples to draw from, it becomes clear that societal definitions of privacy, comfort levels, and locational factors will determine where the line is drawn between respect for privacy and free use of technology in public space. According to an American Congressional Research Service Report cited in the Privacy Report, it is possible that part of easing public comfort about drone surveillance is related to habituation. The Report notes that:

[I]n the current environment, the general public would likely find it exceedingly unusual to see a drone flying over their home taking surveillance photographs. However this could begin to shift as UAVs proliferate and become more accessible to governments, private companies, and even citizens. As drones become ever-present in our society, they can become ‘normalized’ and therefore acceptable

In other words, the report predicts that as we get used to seeing and being seen by drones, we will begin to see them as a normal part of everyday life – as predictable and neutral as the security cameras we expect when we enter a shopping mall, or cross a busy intersection. What the report doesn’t cover, of course, is what might happen before drones become the new normal. If current news coverage of drone-related incidents is any indicator, public opinion is still very much up in the air. Cases of recreational drones being used to snap photos of people in their own homes have raised red flags in some communities, while retailers selling drones and equipment have reported immense growth in the past few years, and the market for commercial and civilian drones is predicted to grow by 19 percent by 2020.

At once immensely popular and a cause for concern, what is clear is that commercial and recreational drone use is here to stay for the long run. What is needed at this point is patience and thoughtful policymaking as businesses, community members, homeowners, and hobbyists conflict and cooperate to make space in our skies for the robots.