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Watching the watchers

Watching the watchers

[Ciara Bracken-Roche]Ciara Bracken-Roche holds an unmanned aerial vehicle. UAVs, or drones, are the focus of her research at the Queen’s Surveillance Studies Centre. Ms. Bracken-Roche, BSc (Toronto), MA (Warwick), is a third-year PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology. c.bracken-roche@queensu.ca

Drones were designed, in part, to watch ­people. Now someone is watching them back.
Ciara Bracken-Roche, a PhD candidate in the Surveillance Studies Centre (SSC) under the ­supervision of David Lyon, is studying the use of drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) as they are used in both surveillance and hobbyist ­situations.

Controlled by a ground-level operator, a drone can fly unnoticed to capture images from a bird’s- eye view. It can be fitted with different attachments to increase its surveillance abilities.

Drones are used by governments, private ­companies and individuals for everything from gathering intelligence to rescuing people from ­natural disasters.

“Drones are becoming increasingly prevalent in the media with a focus on the negatively-perceived side effects of drone usage,” says Bracken-Roche. “However, the surveillance ability of drones ­actually has a number of positive uses. For example, if a hiker gets lost in a heavily wooded area, or there’s a natural disaster of some kind, a drone can be sent to survey areas and bring back information about where a person might be or what a scene looks like.”

In a recent report and survey authored by Bracken-Roche, Dr. Lyon, Mark Mansour, Adam Molnar, Alana Saulnier and Scott Thompson, ­fellow researchers from the SSC, most of those ­surveyed were in favour of drones being used on rescue missions. But the idea of being watched was a different story.

“Our research found that UAV use for surveillance purposes is not well supported, whether by private investigators or government,” says Bracken-Roche.

Surveillance accessories that can be added to UAVs include thermal imaging and night vision to enhance their ability to detect heat emanations from inside buildings. High-power zoom lenses ­allow UAVs to collect real-time video and images; these are increasingly being used by photographers and filmmakers to capture unusual angles and ­perspectives for their craft. [You can see an ­example of UAV-assisted camera work in a video for the Queen’s ­Library and Archives Master Plan.]

To some extent, the use of UAVs is regulated in Canada, but legislation has some catching up to do to address the potential usage of the technology. Transport Canada lists safety rules for UAVs and, depending on the size and weight of a drone, its owner must file flight plans before launching it. On the issue of privacy, however, the federal ­government department gives guidelines, but ­doesn’t go into detail. It requests that operators “Respect the privacy of others – avoid flying over private property or taking photos or videos ­without permission.”

“There are definitely some gaps between the ­legislation and practices,” says Bracken-Roche. “Canada needs to have a greater discussion about how the policy and regulations surrounding drones are developed as opposed to questions ­concerning the legality of some of the tasks these drones are carrying out. Once legislation for drones is established and well understand, then the legal aspects can be determined.”

The SSC’s team’s report, ­“Surveillance Drones: ­Privacy Implications of the Spread of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVS) in Canada,” suggests a number of ­recommendations to tackle key areas of concern.

The researchers propose the creation of a ­national panel of privacy lawyers, surveillance community representatives, and a professor of ­privacy law or internet law. This panel would be tasked with setting up guidelines on context, ­information gathering and usage, and creating a set of strict rules with fines for those who don’t comply. The report was submitted to the Privacy Commissioner of Canada in April 2014. [Read the report online.]

Establishing regulations for an emerging ­technology is an extensive task, but the work of researchers like Ciara Bracken-Roche and her SSC colleagues will ensure privacy protection and ­appropriate usage for this increasingly ubiquitous technology.

[cover of Queen's Review 2015-1]