Version of 31 March 2014


Drones are aircraft that have no human pilot on board. They are usually controlled by a remote human pilot, although most are at least capable of partly autonomous operation, and fully autonomous drones are emerging. The industry uses a wide variety of terms for such aircraft, including remotely-piloted aircraft and systems (RPA/RPAS) and unmanned aerial vehicles and systems (UAV/UAS).

Drones come in varying sizes. Some are large (similar to conventional aircraft, down to 150kg), while smaller drones are usefully categorised as mini- (150kg down to c. 5kg), micro- (5kg down to c. 100g), or nano-drones. Their capabilities vary depending on their size, but drones of all sizes have the capacity for negative impacts on privacy.

Drones’ payloads and controllability have greatly increased, and their costs have dropped sharply, particularly since the turn of the century. This has resulted in many applications becoming economically feasible, and in the emergence of a range of new opportunities.

Currently, some drones are being used for load-carrying, and a few as targets, while many of the smaller categories are used in similar ways to model aircraft, for self-entertainment. The vast majority of licences, however, and a great deal of the hobbyist usage, involve aircraft carrying cameras. While some are fixed-wing aircraft, many are rotorcraft which have the additional ability to hover in place.

Aviation safety regulations have placed some constraints on the deployment of drones, although less so in Australia than in some other countries, particularly the USA. The Australian aviation safety regulator, CASA, has been conducting consultations with industry – but apparently not with civil society – with a view to removing many of those constraints. It is not doing this on safety grounds, but essentially because it considers the existing rules impractical to enforce. In the meantime, many hobbyist users are flouting the rules, without any meaningful action being taken to prosecute offences.

The near-future prospects are of both very substantial increases in drone usage and an absence of any meaningful regulatory action.

Drones and Privacy

There will be many applications of drones that will be economically, socially and even culturally beneficial.

There will also be many uses of drones that have privacy implications.

This Policy Statement addresses uses of drones within Australia, but does not consider their use elsewhere. It is divided into two sections. The first addresses impacts on behavioural and data privacy. The second is concerned with privacy of the physical person.

Privacy of Personal Behaviour, and of Personal Data

Drones are very likely to result in the proliferation of surveillance capabilities. Most commonly, these will involve visual surveillance, with a great many models of mini- and micro-drones designed to carry a remotely-controlled camera. The scope exists for other surveillance capabilities, including in the infra-red range, and across the rest of the electromagnetic spectrum.

The use of drones for surveillance can be reasonably expected to have a number of serious negative implications for behavioural privacy. In particular:

  • the perspective of the observation is from above, which enables obstructions to view to be much more readily overcome
  • the manoeuvrability of the aircraft means that the point-of-view can be moved, and moved quickly
  • in some circumstances, the craft’s manoeuvrability, speed and endurance are sufficient that pursuit of a surveillance target becomes feasible
  • many more organisations and many more individuals will find it economic to conduct surveillance
  • a much greater degree of automated monitoring is feasible
  • multiple sources and live feeds can be used at the same time
  • because the economic constraints are much lower, it is feasible to conduct more intensive surveillance of individuals and locations (i.e. more of the time), and more extensive surveillance (i.e. in more places)
  • as battery technology improves, long-term surveillance becomes a more realistic possibility
  • the enforcement of laws that constrain surveillance will become more difficult, because of the number of organisations and individuals breaching them

Some observation is ephemeral. Increasingly, however, image and video are transmitted and recorded, which means that there can be impacts on data privacy as well. How serious these impacts are depends on the extent to which individuals are identifiable, whether from the recording alone, or when the recording is used in conjunction with other sources of information.

It is important to enable the many beneficial and appropriate uses of drone surveillance, particularly by law enforcement and emergency services agencies and the media, but also in such areas as mining, agriculture, infrastructure maintenance and tourism.

It is vital, however, that unjustified and inappropriate aspects of drone surveillance, by all organisations and all individuals, be subjected to effective controls.

The emergence of drones throws into stark relief just how inadequate existing laws are in relation to surveillance generally.

The APF calls for all of the following:

1.Comprehensive laws regulating surveillance activities, by all organisations and individuals
For further details, see APF’s Meta-Principles, APF’s Policy on PIAs and APF’sPolicy on Privacy and the Media

2. Provisions that relate to private places, but also provisions that relate to private space in public places

3. Provisions relating specifically to visual surveillance
For further details, see APF’s Policy on Visual Surveillance and APF’sPolicy on ANPR

4. Provisions relating to aerial surveillance, reflecting the additional vulnerabilities that arise from it

5. To the extent necessary, provisions relating to surveillance by means of drones

6. The provision of the necessary responsibilities, authority and resources to an appropriate agency, to ensure that threats to behavioural privacy arising from unjustified and inappropriate surveillance are addressed, and that laws are enforced

Privacy of The Physical Person

Privacy of the physical person is the interest that individuals have in protecting their physical selves from interference by other people and organisations.It is sometimes referred to as ‘bodily privacy’.

Drones embody new threats to public safety, in a number of ways:

  • there is a likelihood of a high level of accidents, as a result of lower quality of product engineering, lower quality of training, lower quality of operations, increased density of air traffic, and extended areas in which airspace congestion arises
  • there is a likelihood that drone operations will come into conflict with other activities, in some cases threatening public safety. This may arise from, for example, interference with important law enforcement and emergency services operations, or from intentional or accidental jamming of electronic communications
  • there is considerable scope for aggressive and hostile use of drones, sometimes referred to as ‘weaponisation’. Examples include the delivery of explosive and inflammable payloads, and the carriage of weaponry. A drone could be used in ‘kamikaze’ mode by flying it into a terrestrial target or at an airborne target such as another drone, a helicoptor’s blades, or the air-intake of a commercial jet
  • there is considerable risk of the application of military capabilities in civilian contexts, particularly by law enforcement agencies, but also by the burgeoning categories of mercenary corporations that offer ‘security’ services, in war zones, and increasingly outside them as well

These threats will inevitably give rise to anxiety among a proportion of the public. That will be the case not only to the extent that the risks are real, but even if they are merely perceived to exist.

The APF calls for all of the following:

1. The application of well-established Technology Impact Assessment processes to drone technologies, including through the publication of background and issues papers, public hearings, published outcomes, and commitments to action arising from the outcomes

2.The provision of the necessary responsibilities, authority and resources to CASA, to ensure that threats to public safety arising from drone accidents are addressed rather than being avoided, and that laws are enforced

3. Enhancements to laws protecting the public against drone usage for physical and electronic interference, against aggressive use of drones, and against the application of military capabilities of drones in civilian contexts