Model aircraft flown by hobbyists may be "left entirely unregulated" as the federal government focuses on drones flown for commercial or police purposes, says a new study by the research group of the privacy commissioner's office.
In Canada, unmanned aerial vehicles — or UAVs — are regulated by Transport Canada as aircraft under the Canadian Aviation Regulations. But drones that weigh 35 kilograms or less do not require a special flight certificate when flown for recreational purposes.
The study says the exception poses concerns given that companies are beginning to sell small, inexpensive drones than can stream live video to smartphones.
The privacy commissioner's office worries these recreational drones could fuel the "growing trend" of people using technology to conduct surveillance on fellow citizens.
Drones are often outfitted with cameras but can also carry gizmos such as thermal imaging devices and licence plate readers.
Aside from military and police applications, drones might soon be used for everything from filming movie scenes and digital mapping to wildlife management and industrial espionage, the study says.
The RCMP has begun experimenting with small, helicopter-like drones that fit in the trunk of a car for chores such as photographing accident scenes.
But the devices come even smaller. So-called "biomimetic" drones are made to resemble plants, animals or birds. And portable ones are becoming easier to buy.
"Drones are already being sold in many retail stores," the study notes. "The next generation of recreational drones could prove to be even smaller and cheaper than the ones that currently exist."
Among the technologies that can be mounted on drones:
— high-powered zoom lenses;
— night vision, infrared and detail-enhancing capabilities;
— radar that can track people inside buildings or through clouds or dense foliage;
— video software that can recognize specific people, events or objects and flag movements or changes in routine as suspicious;
— distributed video, where several drones work in synch with multiple video cameras.
"Some of these technologies have the ability to capture data from great distances and through walls, and with a fine level of detail, for example the ability to capture the image of a person's face from miles away."
The study concludes that drone operations involving surveillance of people would be covered by "the same privacy law requirements" as any other data collection practice.
However, it says organizations using drones will be expected to "genuinely address" the privacy implications of their use and ensure compliance with laws and guidelines.
"Furthermore, the advent of the smartphone has made model aircraft, and other such tools for surveillance, data or image capture, a plausible option for recreational use by the public," the study says.
"The collection or use of personal information via model aircraft for personal purposes may reach beyond the scope of privacy law."
So far, there has been no indication that drones are being used in Canada for general surveillance or to gather personal information, the study adds.
But that could change as more of the devices take to the skies.
"It is conceivable that society's expectations of privacy in public could seriously erode if drone use for surveillance activities or any sort of data collection or tracking could become normalized over time as an accepted interference in our lives."