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Drones define new level of surveillance

Ciara Bracken-Roche co-authored one of the world's first reports on drones.

Much remains to be learned about drones, perhaps fitting for this small, unobtrusive technology.  Ciara Bracken-Roche hopes to change that during her PhD research within the Surveillance Studies Centre (SSC) at Queen’s.

Ms. Bracken-Roche’s interest in drones – or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) – took flight when she was completing her master’s degree at the University of Warwick (UK), where she focused on border surveillance and data collection. At that time, drones were still an emerging technology.

“UAVs encompass a whole new level of surveillance technology,” says Ms. Bracken-Roche. “Their usage is not widespread and they are much smaller and quieter than traditional aerial vehicles, so they can go unnoticed easily. Additionally, there’s no proactive policy for them at this time, meaning they are becoming more and more ubiquitous.”

In one of the first reports on drones in the world, titled “Privacy implications of the spread of UAVs in Canada,” Ms. Bracken-Roche and fellow members of the SSC detail the increasing prevalence of drones in society and note the many positive uses for drones.

“Drones can be used to help monitor situations in unreachable places and could help police manage large crowds, or send information from air to land about natural disasters in real time,” she says. “That said, when we conducted surveys for our report drones were typically perceived as aggressive and militaristic technologies.”

Currently, drone usage is governed by a set of recommendations from Transport Canada. This set of guidelines recommends keeping the drone within the line of sight when being operated by a commercial user. When it comes to hobbyist users, though, Ms. Bracken-Roche notes there are no standards to control usage.

“Hobbyists are using these drones for surveillance and this, once again, highlights privacy concerns about UAVs,” says Ms. Bracken-Roche. “Drones are also relatively affordable and people are beginning to take them up like they would photography. In our report we specifically looked at the privacy implications and how they would develop should interest in drones continue to grow. We wanted to have an overall state of affairs on record to provide a baseline for further drone research.”

The report included data from interviews the authors conducted with industry experts, as well as survey results from 3,000 people in Canada as well as several thousand people in the United States and the United Kingdom.

“Our report is an unique contribution to the current landscape of surveillance and drones across the world; we hope it will more accurately address the privacy considerations raised in relation to the current landscape of drone regulation in Canada,” says Ms. Bracken-Roche.

The full report can be found here.