by Rebecca Merrett

Privacy Act lacks sufficient protection against drone invasion

Feb 28, 20144 mins

The exemptions of certain groups of people from drone surveillance in the Privacy Act is an issue that’s top of mind of Australian Privacy Commissioner Timothy Pilgrim.

Speaking at a round table discussion of the Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs, Pilgrim said the fact that small businesses (annual turnover of $3 million or less), media and individuals are not covered under the current federal Privacy Act when it comes to drone invasion is a concern and something that needs to be reviewed more carefully.

He gave an example of where an individual would be exempt under the Act: “Where that comes into play is if you have neighbour who purchases one of the smaller drones/UAVs. If they are undertaking that purely for their own interests — shall we say in terms of filming around their local neighbourhood — there wouldn’t necessarily be a right of recourse under the Privacy Act.”

Another concern of Pilgrim are the definitions of what constitutes as personal data, and to taking into consideration how data in combination with other sources can have an impact of people’s privacy.

“There are other bits of information, which in isolation people may not think is personal information. But if you are an organisation that can join it up with other bits of information, it could become personal information. So there is a grey area around they which is why it’s important to look at the raft of different bits of legislation to see whether they cover the area, particularly with surveillance laws,” he said.

Professor Barbara McDonald from the Australian Law Reform Commission told the round table that there needs to be more unity in state laws concerning surveillance, with many people finding it a burden to wade through the different laws when operating their businesses across different states.

“It has been a very common response we’ve had from people that a uniformity across state boundaries is very highly valued,” she said.

“At the moment, a lack of uniformity means there’s insufficient protection of people’s privacy because people don’t know what’s against the law and what’s not.”

McDonald said the ALRC is due to release a discussion paper in March that will make recommendations in relation to serious invasions of privacy in the digital era. She said she has received a number of submissions from people who have felt that their privacy was invaded due to surveillance technologies and drones, particularly farmers.

Dr Roger Clarke, chair of the Australian Privacy Foundation, said there was a lack of laws that protected people’s privacy from media organisations, saying that the ACMA codes that relate to media behaviour “have shown that they are a total waste of space when it comes to protecting individuals privacy against media intrusions”.

Pilgrim noted that there is a code making provision under the Privacy Act that allows him or an organisation to develop a code in regards to a specific technology such as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

“In the absence of anyone taking up that offer I could develop the code myself through office and impose it on various entities. But again it’s restricted only to those entities that are covered by the Privacy Act.”

Dr Reece Clothier, a board member of the Australian Association for Unmanned Systems, said the Privacy Act needs to move away from looking at specific technology, and become technology neutral, in a similar fashion to proposed reforms to copyright law.

“Whether its drones, whether it’s Google Glasses, whether it’s the fact that I can collect metadata on your Facebook account and marry that with your LinkedIn to track your movements,” he said.

“It’s an issue much broader than unmanned aircraft, and while unmanned aircraft has been active in this space we have served to be the call to arms for broader privacy law reform… which is needed.”

Clothier added that there needs to be a balanced approach if privacy laws were to be reformed so that they don’t suppress the opportunities that can be gained from using drones.

“As a member of an unmanned aircraft industry I would hate to see legislation put in place that hamstrings the many beneficial applications for this emerging aviation industry and its flow on effect from mining, agriculture, everything through a piece of legislation that’s chasing the 0.003 per cent of people or organisations that will misuse it.”