Privacy Commissioner writes to Attorney General regarding drone technology and the impact on privacy

November 9, 2012 |

The Privacy Commissioner wrote to the Attorney General in September regarding the impact of drone technology.

The letter provides:

The Hon Nicola Roxon MP
Attorney-General’s Department
Central Office
3–5 National Circuit

 Dear Attorney-General

There is growing interest in the community and media about the use and implications of aerial drone technology, particularly drones with video recording and streaming capabilities.

While drone technology has clear benefits, such technology presents a number of risks through its potential to be privacy invasive. The risk is heightened because drone equipment is increasingly commercially available, and can be easily purchased and used by individuals in their private capacity.

Where an agency or private sector organisation covered by the Privacy Act 1998 (Cth) (Privacy Act) intends to use drone technology, it must do so in accordance with the Privacy Act. This would include giving notice to affected individuals about the collection of their personal information, only using and disclosing the personal information as permitted by the Privacy Act, and keeping it secure.

The Privacy Act does not however cover the actions of individuals in their private capacity, including any use of drones by individuals.

I understand that there are laws governing unlawful surveillance, stalking and harassment that may apply to the use of drones by individuals. It is unclear however whether those laws provide sufficient regulatory protection, including appropriate restrictions on unreasonable uses.

In particular, individuals who may be subject to surveillance via drone technology may not currently be able to seek appropriate or consistent redress across the Commonwealth. The statutory cause of action for privacy that is currently being considered by Government could be useful in this type of situation.

I suggest that it may be timely to review the current regulatory framework to ascertain whether it is sufficient to deal with any misuse of drone technology. It may also be appropriate to raise this issue with the Standing Council on Law and Justice.

Please contact me if I can be of any assistance.

Yours sincerely


Timothy Pilgrim
Australian Privacy Commissioner

September 2012

As far as it goes the letter is unexceptional.  Drone technology has had a long gestation but is now, courtesy of its very successful military application, moving into general usage.  Unfortunately, as often is the case, the law is lagging far behind.  The use of drones by media would be exempt under the Privacy Act as it is in its use by individuals as the Privacy Commissioner notes.

Any effective response to privacy issues must involve regulating the use of drones.  At the moment that is a matter for CASA.  If there is to be a licensing regime it should include a restriction on the use of drones not being used to infringe privacy.  Unfortunately ACMA regulation of broadcasters has been disappointing at best.  It acts as no disincentive for bad behaviour.   Whoever has the responsibility for the regulation of the use of drones must have the power to ground them, on an interim and permanent basis on short notice if necessary.  A statutory right of privacy is all the more relevant given the impending use of this technology in a civilian environment.

I have posted on this issue here, here and use over overhead technology in the form of hovering helicopters here.





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