MPs decide drones invade Australian privacy

An Australian parliamentary committee has recommended that new laws be put in place to prevent drones from invading people's privacy.
Written by Josh Taylor, Contributor

Australian privacy law needs to be updated to take into account potential breaches of privacy by remotely piloted aircraft, a report by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs has recommended.

The committee, chaired by Nationals MP George Christensen, investigated the impact that drones are having in Australia, and offered a number of recommendations in its report (PDF) for how the technology should be treated under law in order to protect privacy.

The report stated that while remotely piloted aircraft can offer economic benefits and safety improvements, there were a number of incidents reported that raise questions about the safety of drones, and the potential privacy intrusions associated with the use of drones.

Although the total number of drones in Australia is unknown, according to the Civil Aviation and Safety Authority (CASA) there are 110 commercial drone operators with 40 more applying to be drone operators in Australia as of June this year.

The report noted that Australian privacy law was limited in the protections offered against the invasive use of drones federally, with some state laws offering some protection by making it illegal in some circumstances to use a surveillance device to record or monitor private activities.

"The complexity of privacy laws generates considerable uncertainty as to the law's scope and effect. Evidence suggested that Australia's current privacy laws may not be sufficient to cope with the explosion of technologies that can be used to observe, record and broadcast potentially private behaviour," the report stated.

The committee recommended that the government should consider introducing legislation by July 2015 that protects privacy from being invaded by technology such as drones, and the government should consider introduing a tort of serious invasion of privacy.

It has suggested that the state and territory governments discuss with the federal government at a COAG Law, Crime and Community Safety Council briefing in late 2014 a potential privacy regime to harmonise surveillance laws to be technology-neutral and cover listening devices, cameras, data surveillance devices, and tracking devices.

The use of drones by government agencies should also potentially be regulated, according to the report.

The report also recommended that CASA provide information on privacy laws to vendors of drones.

CASA is in the process of changing the Civil Aviation Safety Regulations to account for the use of drones by the third quarter of this year, but under the changes, recreational drone users will not need CASA training or certification. It has not ruled out making separate rules for recreational users, however.

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