Australian ethicists and law experts say that the wide-scale use of remotely-piloted aircraft (RPA) and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) may pose a threat to citizens' privacy. Therefore, they argue, new legislation is required in order to protect this basic right.
There is no argument to be made that UAV and RPA could not be tremendously useful. However, experts argue, the way they are used should be regulated even before the technologies used to create the aircraft become so cheap that everyone can access them.
Currently, Australian citizens are not protected against privacy intrusions by aerial vehicles by any single law. Rather, a so-called patchwork of state and federal rules and regulations is generally used in such cases, law experts at the Queensland University of Technology
Des Butler, a professor at the QUT Faculty of Law, argues that many people are unaware of the privacy issues related to the use of UAV and RPA by state and federal authorities. Very few citizens are aware of the legislation that they can use to protect themselves.
In addition, he says, people should be aware that they have a right to privacy on their own properties. This right is protected by common laws related to trespassing, and a case could be made that airborne surveillance assets trespass on personal property.
“In Queensland, people's rights to privacy are protected under [several laws] which makes it illegal to take pictures or vision of someone that offends their privacy e.g. 'upskirting' or the secret filming of people in change rooms or swimming pools,” he says.
“This also prohibits a person from observing or visually recording another person 'in circumstances where a reasonable adult would expect to be afforded privacy' without the other person's consent,” he goes on to say.
What is important to remember, Butler adds, is that the ownership of the land extends into the sky as well, and is not bound by the fences that may surround a property. “So someone flying over or sending a robotic aircraft over someone else's yard without their approval could, in fact, be trespassing,” he continues.
In the near future, we may expect to hear more of such debates, as the technologies required to fly UAV over cities are being implemented and made available at low cost. In the United States, the issue will most likely be brushed aside as a national security issue, and implemented without a care.
However, in other parts of the world, people are unlikely to stand idly by as UAV are used for surveillance and monitoring purposes.
These assets should be used for useful applications, analysts say, such as surveying wildfires, floods, hurricanes and storms, as well as boards and coastlines.