UAVs and Privacy Issues

November 17, 2009 § Leave a comment

[cross-posted at Current Intelligence].

Kenora, Ontario, has become the first urban centre to make use of UAVs in police work.  Kenora is a town of 16,000 located in the northwestern corner of Ontario, on the Lake of the Woods, 200km east of Winnipeg, 600km northeast of Minneapolis, or 1850km northwest of Toronto.

The Ontario Provincial Police force there has been using UAVs for crime-scene analysis and forensics in August 2008.  The OPP is limited to using the UAVs within crime scenes only, due to Canadian air traffic laws, according to Const. Marc Sharpe of the Kenora OPP.  UAVs currently exist outside of the regulatory framework for air traffic here in the Great White North:

Issued by Transport Canada, the “Special Flight Operations Certificate” (SFOC) that must be obtained for any type or size of “non-hobby” unmanned flying machine dictates a number of operational procedures and restrictions. There is no doubt that the current legislative hurdles are the main reason more of these systems are not being used by civilian agencies.

Sharpe is very clear that the OPP, nor any other police force in Canada, has dispensation to circumvent federal law on the use of UAVs for observation purposes.  Yet,

The fact still remains that no specific legislation has been written to cover the operations of any UAV within civilian airspace. It is an issue that Transport Canada must eventually invest significant resources in developing. Until that time however, we are continuing to develop safe and effective operating procedures that could very well set the standards and templates for the pending legislation.

Given the terrain of the territory covered by the Kenora OPP detachment, it makes some sense that UAVs would be useful for crime scene analysis.  Kenora is a small city, but the detachment is also responsible for the surrounding area, which is largely wooded, and thus crime scenes are often more spread out than would be the case in the city.  Sharpe points to several murder scenes where the UAV has been useful.

In carefully pointing out that the UAV cannot be used for monitoring purposes, Sharpe immediately raised my hackles.  Whilst I realise that the question of cameras and monitoring is not a new one for our English readers, in Canada (and probably North America as a whole), the idea of the police having all sorts of new means of monitoring lawful (and unlawful) behaviour on the streets of the city is one that is rather alarming.  The fact that UAVs fall under the jurisdiction of Transport Canada and not another department, like, for example, DND, probably means I don’t need to be quite so paranoid.  But this does still raise the issue of UAVs flying over Canadian cities (and highways) monitoring the behaviour of private citizens.  We are blessed with a relatively robust culture of privacy in Canada, bolstered by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner, but issues such as these do appear to be something beyond the usual public discourse in this country.

(Cross-posted at Spatialities).

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