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Watchful Eye

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FULL STORY: Watchful eye – Feb 9, 2013

Unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, have inched their way into the public consciousness over the last few years. They’re being used by the military, some police agencies, commercial businesses and even everyday consumers. Their surveillance abilities aid in everything from land surveying to searching for missing persons. They’re readily available to buy and easy to fly.

Aeryon Labs Inc. is one of Canada’s leading drone manufacturers, based out of Waterloo, Ontario. Ian McDonald is the Vice President of Marketing.

“It’s a small, unmanned aerial system that carries a number of different payloads but usually cameras so you can think of it as a flying camera,” says McDonald. “Really a wide range of uses. Anything where you can imagine you’d like to get an aerial perspective or aerial imagery.”

Andy Olesen is an officer with Halton Regional Police and says he saw the potential of drones for police work early on.

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“If you’ve ever encountered a traffic accident on the highway it takes a long time to investigate it and they have to be very meticulous in the measurements,” Olesen says. “The advantage of having the aerial imaging is being able to take those same sorts of measurements and being able to recreate that same sort of scene but be able to do that in a matter of minutes.”

But there are concerns that come with what are essentially cameras, hovering in the skies. David Murakami Wood, a professor in the Surveillance Studies program at Queen’s University is studying what the proliferation of drones could mean for society at large.

“You will get abuse of drones. People will use them for purposes which they were not intended for. They will use them for blackmail, sexual thrills, for all kinds of purposes.”

Murakami Wood also predicts, “We may at least see something a bit like with cars where you have to have a license to operate a drone.”

Surveillance from the skies may not have a downside for police, but it could for the rest of us on the ground.

“It’s one thing having a street camera in a public area where you know where it is,” says Murakami Wood. “But having something as mobile that could be anywhere that you don’t know at any one moment whether it’s following you or not following you. Whether it’s above you to the left to the right you can’t make the kind of decisions you can with open street surveillance about where you go.”

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Currently, the US has 10 unmanned aerial systems patrolling its borders, flown by pilots in four different operating centres. Some privacy watchdogs say that what those drones see, and what’s done with that information, could tip the balance between public safety and Canadians’ privacy rights. Chantal Bernier is Canada’s Assistant Privacy Commissioner.

“The implications would be that you would have personal information of Canadians in a country that has a different privacy framework than ours,” says Bernier. “I’m not saying worse or better. Different,” she says.

In an interview with 16×9, Bernier went on to say that drone surveillance is “an area where clearly the law needs to meet the technology and the technology is moving faster than the law.”

As for Officer Olesen, he’s hopeful that once people see the actual benefits of drones, they’ll change their minds.

“It’s a technology that’s coming,” he says. “If we don’t do it somebody else is going to. It’s going to be in the private sector, the public sector (and) so our thought is we might as well understand it now before it comes.”

Don’t miss an encore presentation of “Watchful Eye” airing this Saturday at 7 on 16×9.