CASA says it can't ensure drone privacy

Aviation agency lacks resources to do more than certify drone safety, says executive director John McCormick

A commercial drone under trial by Australian startups Flirtey and Zookal could be used for textbook delivery. Credit: The PR Group

A commercial drone under trial by Australian startups Flirtey and Zookal could be used for textbook delivery. Credit: The PR Group

The Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) lacks the resources to police privacy of commercial drones, according to CASA director John McCormick.

At a hearing Friday morning of the Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs, McCormick said CASA was set up only to ensure the safety of flying machines and does not have the capability to do privacy tests on unmanned vehicles.

“We’re interested in the safety of the vehicle, not the payload that the vehicle is carrying,” he said. “We certainly do not have the sort of resources or the budget to do the sort of operation to give it justice on the privacy side,” he said.

Also read: Drones to deliver parcels in Australia

CASA stands ready to certify the safety of commercial drones, but does not want to handle enforcement because drones are difficult to police, said McCormick.

“If CASA were to receive a remit – and it’s my deepest desire that we do not receive a remit ... it would be then be a case of, we could only enforce what we know about.”

“Even if I have a law, they’re going to disregard it because they’re disregarding it now.”

A year ago, CASA made the assessment that for every drone it knew about, there were six flying under the radar. “It’s probably gone even further away than that.”

The Australian Certified UAV Operators Association is working on a voluntary code of conduct for industry self-regulation, said the association’s secretary, Brad Mason.

It’s “still a work in progress,” he said. “Some of the members … are a little bit hesitant sometimes to adopt more regulation and more policies."

"We feel we are already quite heavily regulated as it is,” he added.

Mason said that industry self-regulation is effective.

“It’s in our interests to make sure that we operate as safely [as possible],” he said. “It’s the social licence, if you like. If we don’t abide by certain procedures then the perception that we’re doing the wrong thing increases dramatically and that just makes our work and our business that much harder to do.”

The Australian Association for Unmanned Systems (AAUS) does not have a formal code of conduct, but its executive director, Peggy MacTavish, said the association’s role in deciding which drones receive insurance acts as a form of regulation.

“We’ve worked directly with the insurance organisations across Australia because at present if you want to commercially operate you have to be aware of the fact that there are certainly liability issues,” she said.

“We’ve set up a set of standards whereby our organisation will audit a company that wants to obtain insurance.”

The AAUS checks if the company has an operator certificate, is in good standing as a business and has no record of accident, she said. “Based on that, we will make a recommendation for insurance to be sought.”

CASA’s McCormick confirmed that the industry seems to be self-regulating on privacy and said the “status quo may be acceptable.”

“It fits where we are today,” he said, “but if you’re looking to put in a mechanism which will outlive even the next couple of Parliaments ... you have to do something.”

McCormick said there is no stopping commercial deployment of drones.

“It’s a reality that these things are here,” McCormick said. “We cannot turn back the time.”

Adam Bender covers telco and enterprise tech issues for Computerworld and is the author of a dystopian novel about surveillance. Follow him on Twitter: @WatchAdam

Follow Computerworld Australia on Twitter: @ComputerworldAU, or take part in the Computerworld conversation on LinkedIn: Computerworld Australia

Tags certificationunmanned aerial vehiclesAustraliadronesParliamentCivil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA)privacy

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