Australia has an opportunity to create a world leading privacy regime for the effective management of unmanned aircraft flown for commercial purposes according to the Australian Certified UAV Operators Association (ACUO), the main national body for the emerging industry.

An ACUO submission last Friday to the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs outlines a proposed four tier architecture for the development of effective privacy controls that protect individual human rights while still facilitating industry growth. The ACUO submission was well received by the ministers.

The proposed approach would see Australia’s existing Privacy Act and other extant national laws undergo minor modification to recognise that imagery, the primary output of unmanned aircraft used for commercial purposes, needs to be accorded the same status as data. This issue has been loosely explored by the Australian Law Reform Commission in past examinations of privacy law but remains unaddressed at the legislative level.

The second layer of the system would be to use existing Civil Aviation Safety Authority regulations controlling the use of unmanned aircraft in commercial applications to be strictly monitored and where necessary enforced. Existing CASA regulations do not contain privacy provisions nor is this appropriate; however those same regulations effectively act to provide geo-fences where commercial unmanned aircraft are not allowed to operate. Geographic separation of commercial unmanned aircraft from direct human activities will be a major factor in ensuring privacy breaches do not arise in the first instance.

ACUO believes that the greatest risk of privacy breaches caused by commercial unmanned aircraft will be where illegal operators, who do not hold CASA certification, choose to fly and film regardless of consequence. ACUO holds that CASA needs to take a firm approach to illegal operators and prosecute swiftly to ensure the social licence of the Australian unmanned aircraft industry is not destroyed while the industry remains in its growth phase.

The third layer of the system would be the utilisation of existing State and Territory Laws , particularly those which deal with prowler type activities. ACUO notes that the Federal Attorney General last year asked all State and Territory Governments to review the status of their laws, as potentially applied to commercial unmanned aircraft operations, and welcomes this effort to ‘sharpen’ existing law. However ACUO notes that there is little dialogue between State and Territory governments and the unmanned aircraft industry as part of this review process and urges meaningful steps be taken to counter this situation lest unworkable legislative proposals emerge to the detriment of not only the industry but also the overall Australian privacy law framework as now exists.

The final layer of the system would be the adoption of the Australian Privacy Commissioner’s ‘Privacy Impact Assessment’ process as a standard element of operational planning and mission execution by certified unmanned aircraft operators. ACUO holds that privacy should be accorded respect as part of basic airmanship and accepts that there is an obligation on the industry to ensure it achieves its commercial objectives with due consideration of community concerns.