Councillor using drone for city business says he's following the rules

A Hamilton city councillor has been using a drone for three years to film traffic patterns, development properties and heritage buildings. But Ontario's privacy commissioner says the city needs stricter rules in place if elected officials are going to do that.

Terry Whitehead spent $2,150.36 in 2015 to buy a Phantom 3 professional drone

Terry Whitehead of Ward 8 says he's used the drone to film a couple of heritage properties so volunteers could use the footage in promotional videos. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

A Hamilton city councillor has been using a drone for three years to film traffic patterns, development properties and heritage buildings. But Ontario's privacy commissioner says the city needs stricter rules in place if elected officials are going to do that.

Terry Whitehead spent $2,150.36 in 2015 to buy a Phantom 3 professional drone. He says he's used it about a dozen times, and follows federal rules. 

"It's a tool," Whitehead said. "It's innovative. The camera is a tool. A drone is a camera with wings."

It does not mean that any business or anyone who uses a drone is creepy.- Coun. Terry Whitehead

But the drone has raised alarm bells for some.

Ontario's Information and Privacy Commissioner says that if a government official is filming from overhead, the city needs strict policies and procedures to ensure everyone's privacy. 

Whitehead spent $2,150.36 in area rating money in 2015 to buy a Phantom 3 drone. (dji.com)

"Individuals have a right to go about their daily lives, whether in public or private settings, with a reasonable expectation of privacy," the office said in an email.

So any government using drones needs to comply with privacy laws. That means policies around when and why drones can be used, what happens to the information, who has access to that information, and how that information is stored.

"Our office would have concerns about individuals using drones, or other surveillance technology, for city business in the absence of such a framework."

Viv Saunders, a city hall watchdog, came across the drone item while tracking how councillors in Wards 1 to 8 use their area rating money.

Federal guidelines are complicated

Those councillors get about $1.6 million every year to spend on infrastructure, and about $100,000 is in a discretionary fund. That's how Whitehead bought the drone.

Initially, Saunders said, she was "fairly neutral" on the drone purchase.

But the more she thought about it, she said, the more she worried about potential liability, licensing and privacy issues around "a drone being used for government purposes by an elected official."

You need to see these waterfalls from the Niagara Conservation Area up close. 1:33

Transport Canada says municipal governments using drones "for work or research" need a special flight operations certificate.

There are exceptions, particularly for drones that are one kilogram or less, which is the approximate weight of Whitehead's. He says he was following the rules.

Drone rules typically include flying the drone no higher than 90 metres, staying 75 metres away from vehicles and the public, and flying at least 5.5 kilometres away from the airport.

'Their problem and not mine'

Whitehead says he hasn't used the drone in six months. That's when he learned Transport Canada was implementing stricter rules around drone usage.

Last July, the agency published proposed regulations for small drone operators in Canada Gazette. The public comment period ended in October. The agency will post the final regulations this year.

Whitehead says he's used the drone to film a couple of heritage properties so volunteers could use the footage in promotional videos. He's also used it, he said, to inspect a property where a developer illegally cut down trees.

"It's an innovative tool to facilitate making informed decisions," he said. "If (critics) have a problem with it, that's their problem and not mine."

"It does not mean that any business or anyone who uses a drone is creepy."

About the Author

Samantha Craggs

Reporter

Samantha Craggs is a CBC News reporter based in Hamilton, Ont. She has a particular interest in politics and social justice stories, and tweets live from Hamilton city hall. Follow her on Twitter at @SamCraggsCBC, or email her at samantha.craggs@cbc.ca

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