Researchers in Israel have developed a method that pinpoints exactly what a drone is filming, whether it be a person or a building
Along with the rising popularity of unmanned aerial vehicles (otherwise known as drones) has come the advancement of technologies to detect any of these unwanted visitors in the sky. But most technologies haven’t been able to determine with any certainty exactly what a drone is filming — until now.
A group of Israeli researchers has recently developed a technique that can precisely identify what images a drone is capturing.
“Detecting whether a drone is located near you or near a specific target doesn’t actually indicate what is being streamed,” said Ben Nassi, lead researcher of the paper. “We are the first and only method that can tell you exactly whether this drone is being used to capture or stream a specific target.”
The new technique essentially works by creating a recognizable pattern on a subject (in the study, researchers made a specific pattern using smart-film on a window). The team then intercepted a nearby drone’s radio signals using coding on a laptop and looked for that same pattern in the drone’s video footage. They saw it, proving the drone was focused directly on the window.
The researchers even tested the technology out on a T-shirt, and found they were able to see if a drone was capturing images of a specific person wearing the shirt.
Nassi says the inspiration behind the method was to make sure people have a right to privacy.
“(Drones) are being used for spying in addition to recreation,” he said. “So we asked ourselves how we could maybe help the victims instead of the operator, by giving (the victim) a chance to understand that he or she is under surveillance.”
Privacy concerns are probably foremost in people’s minds because they see drones flying and are concerned about what people are capturingLaura Emmett, lawyer
Laura Emmett is a civil lawyer who advises clients on drones and says that while different concerns come up, most questions pertain to privacy.
“There’s potential for civil liabilities in terms of injuries like if a drone malfunctions and hits someone,” she said. “But the privacy concerns are probably foremost in people’s minds because they see drones flying and are concerned about what people are capturing.”
Transport Canada regulates the operation of drone technology, and a breach of these regulations can lead to fines of up to $3,000. But complaints regarding privacy don’t fall under Transport Canada. Instead, privacy complaints are filed through the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, which acts as an ombudsman, investigating the complaint and making a recommendation.
“With the privacy commission, when you make a complaint you have to tell them what information is being collected about you and who is collecting that information,” says Dr. Ciara Bracken-Roche, post-doctoral fellow and drone researcher at the University of Ottawa.
“So up until now that’s been the difficult part because often when people have seen drones they haven’t been able to locate the operator of that drone.”
Further complicating the matter is that privacy laws don’t have any specific mention of drones at all, meaning it could be very difficult to prove a breach of privacy. But Emmett says there’s a good chance this will change.
“I think the law will continue to evolve to address the concerns of citizens in terms of privacy rights and privacy breaches,” she said. “Since 2012 two new privacy torts have been recognized in Canada so I think you’ll potentially see those torts being considered in the context of privacy rights arising from drone use.”
Erika Carrasco heads the emerging technology group at Field Law in Calgary and says preventing your neighbor from spying on you shouldn’t be the primary goal of drone detection.
“From a legal perspective, there hasn’t been a big focus around someone spying on you, unless it’s a company,” she said. “The chances of an individual doing that to another individual are less of a concern than the companies who have deep pockets.”
Instead, Carrasco believes a more serious concern for the future is how we’re going to limit, monitor, and safeguard all the information that various technologies are transmitting to each other, providing the example of information that could one day be sent between an autonomous vehicle and a traffic drone. Currently there’s a gap in the legal system which needs to be closed, she says, so the public can feel confident that their personal and private information is secure.
Carrasco also fears limiting drone use over privacy concerns could take away from their intended commercial benefits.
“You could have a drone out surveying for an oil and gas company or a construction company but we might have such sophisticated and commonly available de-droning technology that someone just presses a button and it has to land,” she said. “Then the commercial and economic benefit of the drone is thwarted by the social protection aspect.”
Time will tell how the law will evolve and adapt to new technology like Nassi’s, but in the meantime Carrasco gives a word of warning.
“Hacking into a drone system to be able to capture what it’s seeing might be illegal because it could be considered a cyber breach,” she said. “We’re going to have to draw all of these boundaries as we move forward.”
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