Domestic drones threaten privacy



It should concern us that UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) have now arrived in New Zealand, apparently without many controls on their use.

The Police have bought one but won’t tell us the make or model. They stonewalled David Beatson’s OIA request to find this out. Beatson reports that Police have already used UAV contractors to gather evidence in two cases so far, even though they told him they have no “specific UAV policy”. Their “policy on video recording” would cover the “imagery accumulated during drone flights.”

When in Parliament I led the Green Party opposition against the too loose controls on video surveillance in what is now the Search and Surveillance Act. But at least the Act does require warrants and reporting procedures for video surveillance that intrude on privacy and stops the Police using video surveillance involving trespass for most offences.

The impression I get from reporting so far is that drone video surveillance will be gathering evidence relating to a wide range of offences, even though UAVs, by the very nature of their surveillance, greatly intrude on people’s privacy.

I am not a great fan of video cameras in our streets, but at least they are in public places.

Drones, by contrast, can take video of places we expect to be private, like enclosed backyards, or bedroom windows that cannot be seen from the street or a neighbour’s property. Small, quiet, low-flying drones will be particularly dangerous in this respect. The Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has produced a Nano Air Vehicle weighing 15 grams and carrying a small video camera. It would be hard to see or hear.

DARPA also has the ARGUS 1.8 gigapixel imaging system which, from a single drone 6000 metres up, can track and store the outdoor movements of everyone in a small city. Some US law enforcement agencies will be salivating at the prospect of “full spectrum surveillance”, particularly when video from the ARGUS is linked with video cameras on the ground.

TDB Recommends

There is a serious debate in American states around the use of drone technology. For example, Becky Strauss of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Oregon branch says, “Drones in Oregon present this unprecedented opportunity for the government to participate in surveillance of law-abiding citizens. Our laws haven’t caught up with the technology.” There needs to be more debate about drone use here in New Zealand.

[In this blog I haven’t dealt with the US military’s use of drones, which violates international law and is killing so many people. I may pick up this important issue in a subsequent blog.]


  1. There is no question about it: this is, in and of itself, an abuse of police and political power. I used to judge political law making by the potential for abuse, and our governments – of whatever stripe – have got away with far more than they have the right over the last forty years (I’m thinking of the data held at Wanganui). The standard was based on the assumption that if a power could be abused, it would be abused – a 100% cast-iron, brass-bound, hand-on-the-Bible guarantee. There are no safeguards.

    But drones, like tasers and airport X-ray surveillance, like informing (dobbing in) and dipping fingers into private bank accounts, goes beyond potential into actual. That Governments demand from their citizens information they have no right to, is an actual abuse. That Governments refuse to divulge information to which citizens have every right of access, is an abuse. It is not as if the cops are that serious about going after criminals. We’ve seen examples of this sort of thing recently (and I have a story to tell there).

    These abuses are a direct attack, with malice aforethought, upon the law-abiding but aware citizen.

    There is a story that goes that shortly after the signatures had been appended to the United States Declaration of Independence, a little old lady asked of Ben Franklin: ‘What have you given us?’

    ‘We have given you a Republic,’ quoth the great man,’ Let’s see if you can hold it.’

    Now, the question I have is this. How do we hang on to our Democracy (so called), when Governments arrogate to themselves powers they neither need nor deserve, and lack the competence and the integrity to wield? As I discovered in 1981, the vote is not enough.

    • Drones in of themselves are not the problem.
      They have a lot of useful applications including Search and Rescue as well as delivery of goods to remote locations and even crop management for large agricultural operations.
      I am a hobbyist who builds my own drones to fly for fun. Technically I suppose I could use them for surveillance, but you could also use a video camera purchased from an electronic stores for surveillance as well.

      From a non-military perspective the potential uses are very exciting. My concern is that scaremongering like this article causes people to think that all drones are bad.

      What we need is better surveillance laws not laws to control drones. It should be illegal to conduct surveillance on someone without a warrant and that is all the regulation we need.

      Banning drones simply because they could be used for something bad is the equivalent of banning cars because they could cause an accident.
      Drones only do what people tell them to do. As someone else said, it is not the drones that are the problem, it is people.

  2. For a better understanding of the context of use of drones from an international perspective, there is an excellent interview at independent American newsite Democracy Now! – – with Andrew Feinstein, author of The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade.

    Headline: As U.S. Faces Gun Epidemic Post-Newtown, Obama Urged to Break With NRA & Back Global U.N. Arms Treaty

    Here is a particularly pertinent quote; “We are seeing the weaponization of the way we live in so many ways. Policing is just one of the most obvious and current examples in that. And I would suggest that the pervasive development of drone technology around the world, that we are seeing being used for all sorts of purposes, is really the thin edge of the wedge when it comes to these issues. We are going to see greater and greater weaponization of drones that we see used in Pakistan and Afghanistan and other places. We are going to see the appearances of those sorts of drones in our own domestic policing and surveillance activities in the United States and in Europe. And there is a huge element to them besides the obvious element of human rights, freedom, to the right to privacy, the right to free expression.”

  3. If we outlaw drones then only criminals will have drones!

    Drones don’t surveil people, people surveil people!

    …I wish this thing had a sarcasm tag.

  4. I can’t believe you wrote this whole article and not mention Big Brother from Orwell’s 1984. That is where we are I think this is now irrefutably heading, unless we, the voters, put a lid on it. The Government has long ago defecated on the notion of “serving” it’s voters. They only serve themselves.

    • We are already living in a ‘Big Brother’ world, in which ‘war is peace, ‘freedom is slavery’ and ignorance is strength’. In NZ debt- slavery commenced around 1875, the war machine became a national icon around 1915, and bought-and-paid-for politicians who promote social control of the masses for the benefit of the elites ….. well that commenced soon after the Maori Land Wars.

      Really big changes commenced once national television became available as a tool to indoctrinate the masses into becoming a ‘Brave New World’ society of mindless consumers.

      Every year that passes the populace is subjected to ever greater restriction of movement, of access, of activity.

      Money-lenders and corporations rule.

      Presumably, the next phase for NZ will be arming drones so that those who do not comply with the fascist agenda can be eliminated annonymously -as is happening in the US.

  5. I remember in the movie, “Independence Day”, that when one of the gigantic saucer-ships hovered over Los Angeles, the local media were having to implore Los Angelenos to stop firing their guns at the alien ship…

    I’m surprised drones in the US haven’t been picked off by our gun-toting, gun-happy, gun-nutty American cuzzies. How could they resist?

  6. On a more serious note… Itr’s only a matter of time before the Boys & Girls in Blue mis-use one of these things. It’s human nature.

    And even if they don’t, New Zealand takes a further step towards State surveillance of our lives.

    Once upon a time, the only eyes that the Police needed was the ‘Bobby on the Beat’. Ironically, the local policeman knew pretty much what was happening – and no cameras, drones, bugging devices, etc, needed.

    All he did was just chat with the locals.

Comments are closed.