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Roger Clarke's Drones and Privacy'

Drones and Privacy
Notes in Preparation for a Roundtable of the
House of Representatives Standing Committee
on Social Policy and Legal Affairs
28 February 2014

Version of 28 February 2014

Roger Clarke **

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Aircraft without onboard pilots are proliferating. They range from the size of conventional manned aircraft to under 100grams. Not even the most sophisticated of them feature all of the safety measures that are mainstream in contemporary passenger and cargo aircraft, and mini- and micro-drones have many vulnerabilities, low reliability, and limited fail-safe mechanisms.

In addition to risks to aviation safety, drones are giving rise to considerable public concern about their use for surveillance. Regulators have been very slow to act, even in relation to matters that are within their scope. Multiple Bills have been tabled in US legislatures, and over a dozen have been passed into law.

The Privacy Commissioner wrote to the then Attorney-General in September 2012, saying that "it may be timely to review the current regulatory framework to ascertain whether it is sufficient to deal with any misuse of drone technology". In response to a brief mention in the Commissioner's Annual Report for 2012-13, a Committee of the Australian House of Representatives invited a range of people to a Roundtable at Parliament House.

The Committee expressed interest in four topics.

1. General privacy concerns raised by widespread use of drones

  1. The primary impacts are on the privacy of personal behaviour.
    There are secondary impacts on the privacy of personal data.
    Those concepts are explained in Clarke (1997, 2006) and s.2 of Clarke (2014)
  2. Virtually all of the generic concerns about surveillance apply to drones.
    This is expressly addressed in s.3.1 of Clarke (2014).
  3. In addition, surveillance concerns are greatly heightened by drones.
    This is expressly addressed in s.3.2 of Clarke (2014).

2. Instances of privacy breaches using drones, by individuals, corporations and government agencies

There is limited actual impact in Australia to date, because the use of drones has not yet exploded in the manner in which drone marketers project.

Public fears are nonetheless considerable, and are capable of being quickly fanned by the media as examples of abuses arise.

3. The adequacy of current national privacy laws in protecting Australians from potential invasions of privacy enabled by drones

Current protections for the privacy of personal behaviour are seriously deficient. A lengthy exposition of the deficiencies is in s.4 of Clarke (2014).

Current protections for the privacy of personal data are very weak. With effect from 12 March 2014, when the 2012 amendments take effect, the protections will be reduced even further.

4. Whether different limits on the use of drones in law enforcement, commercial or domestic contexts should be imposed in response to privacy concerns

Some aspects are common, but some need to be distinct. For example, law enforcement agencies have a wide range of inadequately controlled powers, and there is a risk that the public will perceive those abuse of those powers in relation to drones, together with a risk of actual abuse. Some of the disquiet evident in the USA relates to law enforcement uses.


Clarke R. (1997) 'Introduction to Dataveillance and Information Privacy, and Definitions of Terms' Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, August 1997, at

Clarke R. (2006) 'What's 'Privacy'? Prepared for a Workshop at the Australian Law Reform Commission, 28 July 2006, at

Clarke R. (2014) 'The Regulation of Civilian Drones' Applications to the Surveillance of People' Forthcoming in Computer Law & Security Review 30, 3 (June 2014), at

Author Affiliations

Roger Clarke is Principal of Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, Canberra. He is also a Visiting Professor in the Cyberspace Law & Policy Centre at the University of N.S.W., and a Visiting Professor in the Research School of Computer Science at the Australian National University. He is also Chair of the Australian Privacy Foundation.

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Created: 27 February 2014 - Last Amended: 28 February 2014 by Roger Clarke - Site Last Verified: 15 February 2009
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