Ask LH: Can A Drone Legally Violate My Privacy?

Ask LH: Can A Drone Legally Violate My Privacy?
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Dear Lifehacker, Drones are becoming part of our lives whether we like it or not. Some (like myself) are concerned about the level of privacy we are going to be entitled to in the near future. In addition to criminal elements using drones to case out your property, they can also be exploited by businesses such as solar panel installers looking for potential sales. What legal protections are in place to block drones from snooping on us? And what measures are we allowed to take to self-protect our properties? Thanks, Fred

Dear Lifehacker,

In October last year, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority relaxed its remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) rules to accommodate drone users. It’s now much easier to fly RPAs without a licence in Australia. While this is great news for drone enthusiasts, it has also caused many people to wonder about their own privacy.

The current RPA rules all relate to flying restrictions and make no mention of other people’s privacy. Indeed, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority has no jurisdiction over privacy issues, which makes things a bit tricky.

Back in 2014, a House of Representatives committee investigation found that Australia’s “fractured” privacy regime was ill-equipped to deal with the emergence of drone technologies.

“The capacity of RPAs to enter private property, to travel unnoticed, and to record images and sounds which can be streamed live create significant opportunities for privacy breaches,” the report noted.

“Given that [existing privacy laws] emerged well before the development of RPA technology and in response to substantially different circumstances, they do not provide reliable protection against inappropriate RPA use.”

Despite these findings, there are still no privacy laws in Australia that specifically relate to drone use. As long as the drone pilot isn’t breaking normal privacy laws – such as filming you in a private place – he or she technically hasn’t done anything wrong.

In terms of “self protection” you are prohibited from interfering with the flight path of a drone in Australia – even when it’s hovering over your own property. This includes deploying ‘jamming’ technologies, throwing or firing projectiles at it or attempting to capture it in a net.

As far as we know, nobody in Australia has ever taken successful legal action against a drone pilot for breaching their privacy. Unless your property was damaged by the drone in some way (or you were secretly filmed in the bollocky) there’s very little scope for litigation. Basically, your only option is to contact the relevant government bodies with your concerns. If enough Australians do this, we might see better protections from drone surveillance in another decade or so.

If you require more information, consumer watchdog Choice has an excellent overview of drones and Australian law with an emphasis on privacy. You can also find a breakdown of why the laws are unlikely to change any time soon here.


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  • Drone Pilots are hired by the US Military to fly predator drones in foreign airspace and kill enemy combatants (and you know, foreign civilians).

    Remote Controlled Helicopters have been around for a long time, and are as much a “drone” as a segway ripoff skateboard with two wheels is a “hoverboard”.

    And there’s not much people are doing with remote controlled helicopters now that they couldn’t do previously with a light plane. If you’re at all worried about your privacy, perhaps you should be more worried about this:

  • It’s a storm in a teacup. There are already laws about using cameras and photography in general on and around private and public property, you don’t need separate laws for drones.
    As a photographer I don’t need a drone when I can park out the front of your house and legally photograph you with an SLR camera and a telephoto lens.
    If your that worried about someone seeing your naughty bits don’t walk around the yard naked while mowing the lawn and buy some bloody curtains… I’d be more worried about people with mobile phones invading your privacy. A mobile phone and a selfy stick would be a far cheaper option to ruin someones day.

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