Drone journalism and privacy issues

November 1, 2012 |

In Drone journalism set for takeoff – once they’re permitted to use our airspace the Guardian reports on the impending use of drones in journalism.

It provides:

It was a film that inspired Professor Matt Waite to set up the Drone Journalism Lab. It begins with a man walking across a field, carrying a large metal briefcase. He stops, opens it, revealing what looks like a model aircraft. Using a tablet computer, he selects part of the surrounding area on a digital map, then transfers the flight plan to the model aircraft and launches it into the sky. It flies on autopilot, taking thousands of pictures before landing in a pre-programmed zone. The man removes a memory stick from the device and uploads the data for processing. A few hours later, he’s viewing a high-definition terrain map compiled from the photos.

This isn’t a science fiction movie. It’s the product demo for the Gatewing X100, one of a number of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that anyone can buy today. These machines, commonly known as drones, are already used by the military, the police and the agricultural industry for a variety of purposes – some bloody, some benign and some seemingly designed to provoke people into quoting from George Orwell’s 1984.

But when Waite, an award-winning investigative reporter, stumbled across the X100 during a visit to a major geographical technology event, he was immediately struck by how it could be used for journalism.

“My reporter brain went ‘well there’s every tornado, every hurricane, I’ve ever covered’. This device would be able to do hyper-accurate damage-assessment maps in a matter of hours. With traditional reporting techniques, it takes days, if not weeks. We could rapidly change the way we cover disasters by using UAVs.”

He took out his credit card, hoping to buy an X100 and begin experimenting. But there were two problems: firstly, they cost around £40,000; secondly, it’s illegal to fly one in United States airspace. So Waite went home empty handed.

Still, he couldn’t shake the idea of using drones for journalism. So with the help of a $50,000 (£30,000) grant and the support of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, he founded the Drone Journalism Lab to explore the technical, ethical and legal issues.

Getting off the ground

With the X100 way beyond his budget, Waite turned to a £200 off-the-shelf drone, the Parrot AR. This small, lightweight device can be controlled using a smartphone or tablet. It’s also able to stream real-time HD video footage to a computer.

Of course, bigger drones that can carry bulky news cameras and fly for long periods cost thousands of pounds more. But that’s still cheap compared with the cost of hiring a helicopter or plane to capture aerial footage.

“If you don’t have the kind of huge budget you need to keep a helicopter around all the time, then suddenly this becomes an interesting opportunity,” says Professor Robert G Picard, of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, University of Oxford. The institute is staging a drone journalism workshop on 22 October.

However, the day when Sky News trades in its “SkyCopter” for a drone is still some way off. For starters, Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) regulations make it difficult to fly a drone in built-up areas – the very places where a news drone would be most effective. They can’t be flown further than 500 meters from the operator, or higher than 400 feet, which limits their usefulness for news gathering.

The situation could change in a few years time: a European Commission working paper released in September outlines plans to open up European civil airspace to unmanned drones by 2016 (a similar law will come into effect in 2015 in the US), which would allow them to operate alongside manned aircraft.

Some major media organisations are already experimenting with drone technology, though. The BBC’s research and development department has been working with Southampton University students to kit out a UAV with BBC broadcast cameras. And in Australia, where commercial drone activity has been licensed since 2002, the news programme 60 Minutes caused a stir last year when it flew a small UAV over an immigration detention centre.

But it’s activists, academics and a small army of DIY drone enthusiasts who are really driving the nascent drone journalism movement. For example, during the Occupy Wall Street protests, a modified Parrot AR II drone, dubbed the “occucopter“, was used to stream live footage over the internet. Protests in Poland and Moscow have also been filmed and photographed with drones.

Ethical questions

Of course, UAVs could also be used for less noble kinds of journalism, giving rise to a host of privacy and civil liberty issues. For example, one can easily imagine swarms of paparazzi drones following unfortunate celebrities, or hovering above their Hello-exclusive weddings. Nevertheless, Waite believes existing privacy laws will cover many of these eventualities.

“The question I often ask myself is this: is this a new ethical problem, or is this an old ethical problem involving new tools?” He says the furore over the topless photographs of Kate Middleton illustrates the point. “A lot of people beyond Buckingham Palace believe that was a pretty gross violation of privacy. So does the fact that a UAV could have been used change that at all? It doesn’t.”

Matthew Schroyer, a drone and data journalist, and the founder of the Professional Society of Drone Journalists, has created a drone journalism code of ethics wiki to encourage discussion of these issues. “I think we can meet the challenge together as a group if we abide by codes of conduct,” he says, adding: “There’s a lot of value to be had from these flying robots, as long as we use them ethically.”

Although drone journalism can’t take off properly while commercial restrictions remain in place, Waite believes this is also a blessing in disguise. “It [drone journalism] is not here yet because the law says it can’t be,” he says. “But that’s also a gift. The time we have between now and 2015 in the US, or anything from 2016 to 2020 in the EU, will give journalists the opportunity to really think about how they’re going to use this technology.”

This is not a new issue.  The ABC television program, 7.30, covered this issue on 8 October 2012.

The transcript of the program provides:

LEIGH SALES, PRESENTER: Not so long ago, pilotless aerial drones were the stuff of science fiction. Today, they’re at the centre of a technological revolution and authorities are struggling to keep up. Drones were originally designed for military use, but they’re now used for everything from aerial photography to search and rescue. As Peter McCutcheon reports, they’re creating a whole raft of security, safety and privacy concerns.

PETER MCCUTCHEON, REPORTER: This may look like a group of model aircraft hobbyists. But what’s happening here is far more important than playing with toys.

JONATHAN ROBERTS, CSIRO: Some of the aircraft are hobby-style aircraft, the fuselages, but then inside is really smart computers.

PETER MCCUTCHEON: This is an international competition sponsored by some of the biggest players in Australian aviation looking for a new edge in a technological revolution. The aviation industry calls these “unmanned airborne vehicles”, or UAVs, highly sophisticated aircraft with GPS tracking, cameras and video.

NORM SANDERS, AEROBOT: It’s like television coming along or digital radio or whatever. It is the cutting edge of a brand new technology which can be used for good or evil.

PETER MCCUTCHEON: The dawning age of the drone throws up as many challenges as it does breathtaking opportunities.

TIM PILGRIM, PRIVACY COMMISSIONER: There are issues that this new technology also has the ability to start intruding into our daily lives if it’s going to be misused by people.

JOHN MCCORMICK, CASA: Now we’re seeing the private individual out in his suburb deciding he’ll buy one and he can get it through the internet and we won’t even know he’s got it.

PETER MCCUTCHEON: UAVs were originally developed by the military, with the US making hundreds of drone strikes in Pakistan in its war against the Taliban.

But this technology is being increasingly taken up by civilians. Five years ago the CSIRO set up a special research centre in Brisbane to look at how drones can be put to commercial use. This model chopper is used in trials for monitoring crops.

JONATHAN ROBERTS: There’s so many good applications where you really need to put a camera in the sky or maybe some other sensing systems to actually measure things and look at things from an aerial vantage point.

PETER MCCUTCHEON: The CSIRO is also a major organiser of this event, the UAV outback challenge at Kingaroy in south-east Queensland. The aim is to design a drone that can navigate its way through more than 10 kilometres of bushland and farming country to find this dummy, representing a lost bush walker.

JONATHAN ROBERTS: This challenge is actually targeting search and rescue and that’s seen s a – most people I talk to, in fact everybody I talk to, thinks that’s a very good use for unmanned aircraft.

PETER MCCUTCHEON: But it’s not only scientists and boffins interested in this new technology. In northern New South Wales, a small company is trying to make some money out of it. Aerobot imports parts and assembles drones with mounted high definition cameras. This octocopter retails at just under $10,000.

Who buys this sort of thing?

FLICK DURHAM, AEROBOT: Well, a lot of TV/film professionals, photographers. Mining industries are trying to get into it, as well as search and rescue, fire brigades. The life savers are going to be using them.

PETER MCCUTCHEON: But there’s a catch. Very few people in Australia, only 24, have permission from the aviation regulator CASA to use this technology commercially.

JOHN MCCORMICK: Our current regulations work on the fact that there is a difference between someone using something for a private purpose and someone using something for a commercial purpose; that they’re gonna take photographs, sell those photographs, that sort of thing.

PETER MCCUTCHEON: A near miss between a model aircraft and a passenger jet at Perth airport three years ago shows why CASA is concerned. The incident was caught on the drone’s video camera. But pressure is growing on CASA to open the skies to smaller drones.

How difficult is it running a business like this under current CASA regulations?

NORM SANDERS: It’s impossible.

PETER MCCUTCHEON: Norm Sanders is a pilot, former Australian Democrats senator and adviser to Aerobot.

NORM SANDERS: CASA has no idea – nobody in CASA has any idea about how to operate one of these things so they just put in this blanket rule which stifles this growing industry.

PETER MCCUTCHEON: A quick search on YouTube shows how fast this technology is being taken up and how far consumers can push the law with computerised flight goggles and high definition cameras.

Now this is the latest toy drone to come onto the market. It just costs a few hundred dollars, but it has the sorta technology that would’ve seemed science fiction 10 years ago. It streams live footage back to my iPhone. It has a computer on board which automatically stabilises the whole thing. And to land it is simple; I just push a button. Goes back down.

For its part, CASA admits the genie is out of the bottle.

JOHN MCCORMICK: So I think what’s happened here is we’ve seen an explosion in the number of vehicles that are available. As I said, the internet, access to relatively cheap vehicles made overseas, predominantly in China, that’s happened very, very quickly. I don’t think anyone foresaw that.

PETER MCCUTCHEON: The head of CASA John McCormick says the regulator is now looking at introducing a weight limit to make it easier for commercial operators to use smaller drones.

JOHN MCCORMICK: Because of the plethora of small vehicles that are available now and their capabilities, that most probably is impossible for us to enforce. So we have to more or less address reality. There’s no point us writing a regulation or an order that we can’t enforce. That’s just bad law.

PETER MCCUTCHEON: And another area where the law may need clarifying is the right to privacy, with the paparazzi using drones for celebrity shots in the French Riviera and possibly the recent topless shots of the Duchess of Cambridge. And the controversy is coming closer to home.

TIM PILGRIM: Well we’re starting to hear of some cases. There was one in New South Wales where someone went to their bedroom window one morning and opened up their curtains and found there was a drone with a camera hovering outside their bedroom window.

PETER MCCUTCHEON: The Commonwealth Privacy Commissioner Tim Pilgrim says our current laws may need updating.

TIM PILGRIM: If an individual is using one, say, a neighbour or someone in your street, many of the laws we have don’t apply to the activities of those individuals. So, we need to take stock of the surveillance laws that may exist in the states and territories and have a look to see whether we think they’re going to provide an appropriate level of regulation.

PETER MCCUTCHEON: Back at Kingaroy, the focus is not on privacy, but on how far the technology can go. Several manufacturers of larger drones, Lockheed Martin and the Boeing subsidiary In Situ Pacific, are keen observers, looking to expand into the civilian market, starting off with searches and patrols in remoter areas.

ANDREW DUGGAN, INSITU PACIFIC: We’ll build trust with CASA and with other air space users and bring it back into more short-notice, more immediate type scenarios where we can really extend the technology of the limits of what it’s capable of.

PETER MCCUTCHEON: Surf Lifesaving Australia is planning to soon send drones on test patrols over Queensland’s North Stradbroke Island. And the release of regulations for small drones later this month will give some insight into just how fast the technology will be coming to a neighbourhood near you.

The inadequate state of privacy protection is highlighted in this story.  Technology has moved beyond the operation of the common law and the current already inadequate statutory privacy protections.  It would be difficult to see how the Privacy Act would apply except as it relates to the storage of the personal information (provided of course the exemptions don’t apply – which they probably do if the drone is operated by a journalist or used for the purpose of journalism or it is used by a small business operator). Flying over a target in an open space or peering into a property from altitude outside the property line probably wouldn’t attract the attention of the surveillance laws. The common law or equitable remedies, such as nuisance, trespass and breach of confidence may apply in certain limited cases but it would involve stretching those concepts beyond their traditional uses.  And there are circumstances where it would be difficult to bring such an action for what would be an intereference with privacy.  The Privacy Commissioner focuses on regulation.  That is a partial solution which puts the enforcement into the hands of an agency or police.  In Australia effective enforcement of privacy rights has been problematical on (many) occasion(s).  In any event it misses the point.  If someone’s privacy has been intereferred with should they not have the right to take action rather than those rights be subordinated to a third party who may, or may not, exercise his or her discretion depending on potentially different priorities.  An individual may wish to exercise his or her rights on whatever level and the best way of attending to that would be through a statutory right to privacy.   That right should sit concurrently with any other form of regulation.



Leave a Reply

Verified by MonsterInsights