Wednesday, September 18, 2019
News, analysis and commentary by UBC Journalism students


Privacy concerns hover over RCMP drones in British Columbia

Early one morning in 2009, the Texas Department of Public Safety’s SWAT team approached the home of an Austin man…


Draganflyer X6
The Draganflyer X6 drone is used by law enforcement agencies throughout Canada and the United States (Image courtesy of Draganflyer Innovations Inc.)

Early one morning in 2009, the Texas Department of Public Safety’s SWAT team approached the home of an Austin man suspected of possessing illicit drugs and weapons. Armed with a search warrant, the SWAT team wanted a bird’s-eye view of the property before storming the building and making the arrest. According to the Washington Post, however, the officers feared the suspect might shoot down a police helicopter and instead launched an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), or drone.

Law enforcement agencies are among the many individuals, groups and organizations around the world — from farmers to fire fighters to researchers to oil and gas producers and so on — interested in using drone technology.

A recent study by Teal Group Corp., a team of aerospace and defense industry analysts, estimates that on a worldwide basis, “UAV spending will almost double over the next decade…totaling just over US$94 billion.”

Last August, RCMP in British Columbia launched a year-long pilot project testing the usefulness and cost-effectiveness of using drones to take aerial photographs of traffic accidents, the idea being that the images can help officers analyze and reconstruct collisions. The drones might also be used to collect evidence at “significant crime scenes,” the RCMP said.

Some, however, are concerned about the impact drone technology could have on Canadians’ privacy and its potential for “function creep,” especially since law enforcement agencies in the United States are using drones for more than their stated purpose.

What are you looking at?

Micheal Vonn, policy director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, fears law enforcement drones are intended for “much, much more” than traffic and safety.

“When we’re looking at deploying the tools of war domestically by the B.C. RCMP, we need to ask exactly what is the intention and how is this proportionate to whatever the purported problem is,” said Vonn.

The U.S. experience may offer a clue as to how the use of law enforcement drones could evolve. In 2010, a Predator drone used by U.S. Customs and Border Protection to patrol the northern border for drug smugglers and illegal immigrants assisted police in Nelson County, North Dakota in arresting a family of anti-government separatists who failed to report missing cows that wandered onto their property.

More recently, Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office near Houston, Texas expressed interest in arming its $300,000 ShadowHawk drone with non-lethal weapons — including tasers, tear gas and rubber bullets.

“What you’re talking about is expanded surveillance powers,” Vonn said. “We now have technological innovations that will allow for population-based surveillance — essentially dragnet surveillance — looking for crimes that are not even being investigated, looking for suspicious people, looking for intelligence, looking essentially to risk-score entire populations in terms of potential threats.”

The possibility of drones being used for surveillance, she said, is “absolutely chilling.”

[pullquote]When we’re looking at deploying the tools of war domestically by the B.C. RCMP, we need to ask exactly what is the intention and how is this proportionate to whatever the purported problem is.[/pullquote]

Scott Hutchinson, senior communications adviser with the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, said the organization recognizes the potential of drone technology to be used for surveillance.

“There are privacy concerns about the possibilities simply because it’s a form of surveillance that is potentially covert or hidden,” he said. “When you step into a store that is being surveyed by video cameras, there should be some notice informing you that ‘Hey, you’re on candid camera.’ But that would be very difficult [or] impossible to do in the case of a flying drone.”

Ryan Calo, director for privacy and robotics at Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society, said in a Stanford Law Review article published in December 2011 that drone technology might actually be good for privacy law.

“People would feel observed, regardless of how or whether the information was actually used,” writes Calo. “The resulting backlash could force us to re-examine not merely the use of drones to observe, but the doctrines that today permit this use.”

As long as it’s legal

Both Vonn and Hutchinson emphasized the need for law enforcement agencies to follow legislation when implementing new programs.

Drone use in Canada is regulated by Transport Canada under the Aeronautics Act, which enables the Canadian Aviation Regulations (CARs).

Under CARs, a Special Flight Operations Certificate (SFOC) must be obtained before a drone can be operated in Canadian airspace. Between January 2007 and January 2012, 293 SFOCs were granted for drone use alone.

However, Transport Canada Media Relations Manager Patrick Charette said in an email there is no centralized list of SFOC holders and thus it’s difficult to know who has permission to operate drones in Canada.

Charette added that his organization is monitoring developments of the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s UAV flight regulations — which is required by law to safely integrate drones in American airspace by 2015 — and will work with “the UAV community” to ensure the same happens in Canada.

Transport Canada is responsible for regulating Canadian airways. It is not, however, responsible for ensuring that privacy laws are upheld. Instead, any Canadian government institutions seeking to implement, modify, contract out or transfer programs involving the use of personal information for administrative or decision-making purposes are required to complete a privacy impact assessment  — which identifies, quantifies and describes a program’s potential privacy risks — before receiving Treasury Board approval.

Hutchinson said the Office of the Privacy Commissioner, which reviews privacy impact assessments, has not received one from the RCMP regarding the use of drones. This, he said, is probably because RCMP drones are not collecting personal information as defined by the Privacy Act. If, however, there is ever a program conceived where law enforcement agencies use drones to survey the public or collect personal information, they will need to complete a privacy impact assessment.

“We’d want to review the assessment [and] provide advice and recommendations,” said Hutchinson. “Depending on the nature of the initiative, it might also be appropriate to recommend that the institution behind it carry out some form of consultation to inform the public.”

Buzzing to a traffic accident near you

RCMP in B.C. fly Draganflyer X6 drone
Sergeant Dave Jewers, Unit Commander of RCMP Traffic Services in B.C., pilots the Draganflyer X6 (Image courtesy of RCMP)

In B.C., the RCMP is prohibited from flying drones over crowds, near buildings or higher than 175 feet.  Only licensed officers are allowed to operate drones, and they must remain within the officers’ line of vision.

“We’re not allowed to overfly any person that’s not directly involved in the operation,” said Sergeant Dave Jewers, unit commander of RCMP Traffic Services in B.C., who operates the drone being tested as part of the year-long pilot program.

“We specifically wrote in our policy that we won’t do surveillance,” he added.

“It’s turned very badly on police agencies that have tried [drone surveillance] in the States,” said Jewers. “We will not be doing surveillance of people or vehicles with our UAVs. Just aerial photography.”

The unit’s Integrated Collision Analysis and Reconstruction Service (ICARS) is testing the Draganflyer X6 — a drone  manufactured and retailed by Saskatoon-based Draganflyer Innovations Inc. — to take aerial photographs of major collision scenes in the Lower Mainland. The images help analyze and reconstruct accidents and can be submitted to courts as evidence.

“It works fabulously,” said Jewers. “It’s a great piece of equipment.”

He said drones are far more effective at taking photographs of collision scenes than someone standing on the ground.

“Say there’s a big 18-wheeler crash where there’s evidence probably five, six, seven hundred metres down the highway. Just having close-up photos…doesn’t show you an overall image of the whole thing,” he explained.

Jewers also said drones can be set up and deployed within minutes at a fraction of what it costs to call in helicopters. This allows officers to get the evidence they need faster and reopen roads sooner.

There’s an app for that drone

View from a Draganflyer X6 drone
Bird's-eye view of traffic from a Draganflyer X6 (Image courtesy of Draganflyer Innovations Inc.)

Law enforcement agencies elsewhere in Canada have also started using drones, including RCMP in Saskatchewan and police departments in Kenora and Thunder Bay, Ont. and Prince Albert, Regina and Saskatoon, Sask.

Saskatoon Police Inspector Jerome Engele said his department tested an early model of the Draganflyer X6 as far back as 2003 before adopting the current version around 2006.

His unit is subject to the same restrictions as RCMP in B.C. in terms of where drones can be flown and by whom. They, too, use drones for collision analysis and reconstruction. However, Engele said the drone’s small size, easy operation, 20-minute battery life and ability to fly in below freezing weather conditions makes it useful in other situations as well, including SWAT.

“If you have an incident where you’ve got someone that’s holding a hostage on the second floor of an apartment complex and naturally we can’t see in, you could use [it] to fly up and hover outside the windows to look in,” explained Engele.

Engele said drones can also be used for emergency response and outdoor homicide investigations.

“There’s so many applications, you’re crazy not to use it,” said Engele.

He insists, however, there is no reason for people to be concerned about law enforcement drones and privacy.

“We [do] everything within the law. We’re not going to use it illegally whatsoever,” he said.