Speech - Eyes in the sky: Inquiry into drones and the regulation of safety and privacy

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14 July 2014

I rise to speak to the Committee’s first report to this 44th Parliament, Eyes in the Sky: Inquiry into drones and the regulation of air safety and privacy.

Firstly, as Deputy Chair of the Committee, I wish to commend the Chair and Committee Members for their work throughout this inquiry, and I want to especially acknowledge the Secretariat’s contribution.

I would also like to say thank you to the all-important witnesses that provided evidence and took time to demonstrate the capability of drone technology.

The Remote Piloted Aircraft or drone industry in Australia and in other parts of the world is booming. Private and commercial use of RPAs has proliferated as technology advances, costs reduce and usability improves.

Relevant Australian legislation around the use of RPAs has not kept pace with the industry and as this inquiry has found, proactive measures need to be taken to protect commercial and recreational users and members of the public.

The inquiry found that there are many current and potential uses for drone technology that could bring benefit to Australia, including their use by emergency services.

With this expanded application and use, however, come a number of safety and privacy concerns.

A number of safety risks concerning drones were raised by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority – chiefly:

  • build quality of drones including electrical componentry, and
  • safe integration of drones into Australian airspace.

CASAs Director of Aviation Safety, Mr John McCormick told the committee that there is a risk of interference with other vehicles, interference with other aircraft, and the possibility of crashing in public areas.

This circumstance was evidenced earlier this year in my electorate of Newcastle, when a rescue helicopter was forced to take evasive action to avoid colliding with an unidentified drone.

While control of airspace is already legislated, the Committee recommends that CASA broaden future consultation processes to include industry and recreational users from a non-aviation background.

Future consultation should identify and seek comment from peak bodies in industries where RPA use is likely to expand such as real estate, photography, media, and agriculture, amongst others.

RPAs also pose a potentially serious threat to Australians’ privacy.

Through application, RPAs can intrude on the privacy of individuals’ or businesses’, either deliberately through surveillance activities, or inadvertently in the course of activities like aerial photography, traffic monitoring, or search and rescue.

And as device capability improves and units become cheaper, government agencies, companies and individuals will be provided with a very cost-effective mechanism to observe and collect information on Australians, potentially without knowledge or consent.

The Privacy Act does offer substantial protections in certain circumstance, but there are a number of situations in which it may not protect Australians against the invasive use of drones.

A lack of uniform laws across state boundaries was highlighted as a particular issue of concern, as was the method for individuals to redress potential privacy breaches.

These issues are not unique to the use of RPAs, however as capability improves and drone use increases, further tests of the privacy regime are likely.

In his address to the Committee, the Privacy Commissioner, Timothy Pilgrim said:

With such a new technology, the question comes down to how its use’s going to be regulated. What are the ways in which it can be regulated so that we can still achieve the benefits that the technology can bring, at the same time as making sure that people have a right of recourse or a remedy if they believe their privacy has been invaded by misuse of these technologies?

The Committee recommends a number of measures to improve privacy laws in Australia. Of particular importance, the Committee recommends that in considering the type and extent of [Privacy] protection to be afforded, the Government consider giving effect to the Australian Law Reform Commission’s proposal for the creation of a tort of serious invasion of privacy, or include alternate measure to achieve similar outcomes, with respect to invasive technologies including remotely piloted aircraft.

The Committee put forward six very sensible recommendations to address concerns regarding air safety and privacy around the use of RPAs in Australia.

I commend the Committee’s report to the house and look forward to the Government’s response.

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Authorised by Sharon Claydon MP, 427 Hunter Street Newcastle