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Privacy concerns over unmanned aerial drones

Published: 1:55PM Monday September 17, 2012 Source: Fairfax

Unmanned aerial vehicles could infringe on privacy and a law debate is needed before they become a problem, the Privacy Commissioner says.

Marie Shroff is calling for a debate on the usage of drones, known as "eyes in the sky", and look into regulating them.

"While, using drones can [be] beneficial - for instance to see into places where it's not safe for people to go, as happened with Christchurch Cathedral, or for research - it's their wider uses that potentially raise concerns,'' she said.

"Drones have the potential to be seriously intrusive.''

The unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) could be used to take video footage or photos from the air, and are discreet because of their size.

They are already being used commercially in New Zealand, and police are eyeing them for the future.

Shroff said organisations using drones should have "stringent controls" on how the images were used and who they were disclosed to.

They were expected to have a "very good reason" for collecting information in that way and to consult with the commission about their proposals, he said.

"Privacy isn't the only thing to consider, so this may be a good time to debate the risks and benefits of drones and think about regulating their use before they become a problem."

Aerial imaging company Sycamore is one of eight companies that has Civil Aviation Authority authorisation to use UAVs.

The vehicles are fitted with cameras to shoot commercial films and photography from the sky in Wellington and Hawke's Bay.

Director Stephen Davies Howard said the company "wholeheartedly" supported the Commissioner's call to look at regulating the use of UAVs.

"Our fear is that if this is uncontrolled, unregulated, then these things could be flying around anywhere.

"And really we don't want that to happen because we regard ourselves as an aviation company as well as a creative film company,'' he said.

Howard said Sycamore did not take images of houses and advised people before filming.

"We've concentrated on work that is either looking into a commercial site or is up close and personal with people.

"The whole way we operate is to make sure we do it within the rules and within the law, so we build a business model that is sustainable," he said.

United States police have already been given consent to use drones, while New Zealand police were still contemplating it.

A drone had been used to canvass an area where the body of Wellington woman Sofia Athanassiou was found in July.

National crime manager Detective Superintendent Rod Drew said UAVs could be useful to photograph crime scenes or help with search and rescue.

Police were "very aware" of the potential privacy issues around using drones and they would work through those issues as part of their evaluation, he said.

"As with any police activity the use of UAVs would always have to be fully in accordance with the law."

A decision on whether police should use drones is expected in about six months.

The Government revealed plans to overhaul 20-year-old privacy laws in March, and policy proposals based on a Law Commission's review is expected to be announced later this year.

UAVs were not included in the Law Commission's report, however.

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