Spies in the sky
Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, are an increasingly prevalent part of the technology of modern warfare, law enforcement, aerial photography and photogrammetric survey, and increasingly popular amongst the hobbyist flight fraternity. Joshua Kopstein recently reported on the release of the ARGUS-IS drone equipped with 1.8 gigapixel camera that can observe and record ‘…an area half the size of Manhattan‘, and is capable of detecting and tracking objects as small as six inches from an altitude of 20,000 ft. Although this real-time surveillance technology has obvious appeal for police, public safety and emergency response agencies, and is changing the way much geospatial information will be captured, it also raises many questions about legitimate observation versus a right to privacy. Many civil liberties groups have expressed concerns about inappropriate government surveillance, aerial stalking, drone harassment and the potential for misuse of the information they collect. The Information Commissioner’s Office in the UK recently noted in a draft report on surveillance “In the context of war, consent, privacy, and data protection may be little considered, but in the context of the mundane policing of citizens, such considerations should not be so easily abandoned.” (Surveillance Road Map – A shared Approach to the Regulation of Surveillance in the United Kingdom).
The UK’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) policy for the operation of UAVs includes:
- All UAVs must operate below 400 feet
- UAVs must remain within 500 m of the operator at all times
- UAVs cannot fly over/within 150 m of congested area of a city, town or settlement
- UAVs must remain at least 50 m clear of any person, vessels, vehicle or structures
- UAVs must have a fail-safe mechanism to terminate the flight following the loss of signal or detection of an interfering signal
So, could I buy a UAV, attach a camera to it and fly it over my neighbour’s garden to see why he’s been clearing such a large patch of ground next to our shared boundary? It’s not in a congested area, the area of interest is more than 50 m away from people, vessels, vehicles and structures, it would be flying below 400 m and the device would never be more than 500 m away from me. Does my concern about any potential development outweigh my neighbour’s right to privacy? In the USA, this type of UAV use will soon be prohibited as a number of states – Texas, Oregon, California and Florida to name a few – seek to introduce legislation making it a criminal offence to take photos from unmanned aircraft without the permission of the property owner. As is often the case, legal safeguards have lagged behind the adoption of new technology but the lawmakers are now catching up. The window of opportunity to “observe” what’s going on next door will soon be closed. Looks like I’m going to have to ask my neighbour myself.