Privacy fears as drones move into mainstream

Sky eye: Remote-controlled helicopters are capable of carrying cameras.
Sky eye: Remote-controlled helicopters are capable of carrying cameras.

MEDIA organisations have begun ramping up their use of drones, but privacy advocates warn of gross invasions in an age where virtually anyone can now operate an eye in the sky.

Retail chains such as Harvey Norman sell remote-controlled aerial devices equipped with cameras for as little as $350, as they move increasingly from a covert surveillance tool to the mainstream.

More advanced models, costing more than $10,000 and capable of carrying heavy-duty cameras, can easily be bought online.

But while Australia's major TV networks are already putting the new technology to the test for the screen, there are fears the devices could also be used to replace the paparazzi's prying long lenses.

''Kate Middleton and many other people besides can rest assured that their bare breasts are fair game, anywhere, any time,'' the Australian Privacy Foundation's Roger Clarke warned, in a week when snaps of the pregnant Duchess in a bikini made international headlines.

Fox Sports began using drones for aerial coverage of Twenty20 Big Bash cricket last year, while the Nine Network has conducted similar experiments at Perth's WACA ground.

Seven's Sunday Night program spent two weeks in the lead-up to Australia Day filming with a drone around the country. On Sunday night the program aired a story about rusting supertankers in Bangladesh that was partly shot using a drone.

Sunday Night executive producer Mark Llewellyn said most TV networks were looking at drones as replacements for expensive and bulky helicopters.

''There are so many things that you can do [with drones] if you plan them properly,'' he said. ''If you want to chase a car or go at speed towards somebody on a ski slope or climb into what was previously a very difficult, inhospitable location you could do all of that.''

Asked whether he would sanction sending a drone to cover a high-profile celebrity wedding, Llewellyn said that ''if it was a celebrity who was high profile in the public eye and was behaving like a complete prat and there was some way of drawing a legitimate reason for doing it maybe you'd consider it''.

The paparazzi have used drones as far back as 2010 to stalk Paris Hilton around the French Riviera and Australian snappers are reportedly not far behind.

Last year a New South Wales resident filed a complaint after spotting a drone hovering outside their bedroom window, Australian Privacy Commissioner Timothy Pilgrim said.

Australian media organisations conducting journalism with drones and individuals flying them around the street are not covered by the Privacy Act. Mr Pilgrim believes a public debate about the use of drones is needed.

Denied access to the Christmas Island immigration detention centre in 2011, Nine's 60 Minutes controversially flew a drone over the facility; it crashed into the sea after obtaining only mediocre footage.

ABC head of policy Alan Sunderland said drones had ''enormous potential as a tool for modern reporting'' but there were a number of regulatory and ethical issues to work through.

Hobbyist use of drones is unregulated but commercial operators must obtain certification from the Civil Aviation Safety Authority, which imposes strict rules on where and when drones can fly, including not flying above 400 feet.

This story Privacy fears as drones move into mainstream first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.