Ontario’s Information and Privacy Commissioner (IPC) is a prolific author of timely and interesting commentary on pressing privacy issues. Earlier this month, the IPC released a new paper on “drones” or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) entitled, “Privacy and Drones: Unmanned Aerial Vehicles“.

The privacy issues relating to drones differ from typical video surveillance. Typically, video surveillance involves mounted cameras that record activities in a single location or that must be moved on the ground from location to location. By contrast, drone technology permits users to gather information from unique vantage points in the air and offer greater dynamic-gathering capability. Drones have become increasingly powerful with the ability to sharper video images at greater distances and with infrared and thermal imaging capability. As the IPC notes, the combination of UAV technology and facial recognition programs means that drones could be used to continuously track individuals when “in public” and when “in private”.

UAV technology is deployed not only for military and law enforcement purposes, but also in many civilian applications. As the IPC notes, drones operate in such diverse applications as atmospheric research, mineral exploration, survey and inspection of remotely installed equipment (e.g. pipelines), and emergency monitoring.

The IPC is calling for greater public debate and consultation in Canada. In particular, the IPC would like public debate regarding the necessity of any proposed UAV program and the policies required to ensure that the program is acceptable to Canadians. The IPC’s view is that the use of drones by the state (including law enforcement) should require a warrant if it will involve “sustained surreptitious surveillance”.

Beyond debate, the IPC has suggested that in most applications, it may be appropriate to employ IPC recommends anonymous video analytics software, loaded on the device, processes the video feed to detect facial patterns in data being recorded by UAVs. This technology can be deployed to screen video feeds in real time to obscure permanently images that resemble faces.

In addition, the IPC advocates federal amendments to Transport Canada aviation regulations to require drone operators to obtain a special flight operations certificate that would involve a privacy protection program.