Domestic drones threaten privacy


It should concern us that UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) have now arrived in New Zealand, apparently without many controls on their use.

The Police have bought one but won’t tell us the make or model. They stonewalled

David Beatson’s OIA request

to find this out. Beatson reports that Police have already used UAV contractors to gather evidence in two cases so far, even though they told him they have no “specific UAV policy”. Their “policy on video recording” would cover the “imagery accumulated during drone flights.”

When in Parliament I led the Green Party opposition against the too loose controls on video surveillance in what is now the Search and Surveillance Act. But at least the Act does require warrants and reporting procedures for video surveillance that intrude on privacy and stops the Police using video surveillance involving trespass for most offences.

The impression I get from reporting so far is that drone video surveillance will be gathering evidence relating to a wide range of offences, even though UAVs, by the very nature of their surveillance, greatly intrude on people’s privacy.

I am not a great fan of video cameras in our streets, but at least they are in public places.

Drones, by contrast, can take video of places we expect to be private, like enclosed backyards, or bedroom windows that cannot be seen from the street or a neighbour’s property. Small, quiet, low-flying drones will be particularly dangerous in this respect. The Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has produced a

Nano Air Vehicle

weighing 15 grams and carrying a small video camera. It would be hard to see or hear.

DARPA also has the

ARGUS 1.8 gigapixel imaging system

which, from a single drone 6000 metres up, can track and store the outdoor movements of everyone in a small city. Some US law enforcement agencies will be salivating at the prospect of “full spectrum surveillance”, particularly when video from the ARGUS is linked with video cameras on the ground.

There is a serious debate in American states around the use of drone technology. For example,

Becky Strauss of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Oregon branch

says, “Drones in Oregon present this unprecedented opportunity for the government to participate in surveillance of law-abiding citizens. Our laws haven’t caught up with the technology.” There needs to be more debate about drone use here in New Zealand.

[In this blog I haven’t dealt with the US military’s use of drones, which violates international law and is killing so many people. I may pick up this important issue in a subsequent blog.]