The federal government should consider restricting the use of small camera-equipped drones near "sensitive and protected" areas such as residential neighbourhoods, schoolyards and prisons, says the federal privacy czar.
In a submission to Transport Canada, the office of privacy commissioner Daniel Therrien also calls for some means to "readily identify" operators of the flying devices, given their powerful surveillance capabilities.
Next year the government plans to introduce regulatory requirements for small drones — weighing 25 kilograms or less — operated within visual line of sight.
A notice published by the federal Canadian Aviation Regulations Advisory Council says the coming regulations will build on the regime already in place for larger drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
A growing number of people are flying aircraft that have no pilot and can be controlled using a smartphone or tablet — a "new and rapidly evolving industry" that creates regulatory challenges for safety and privacy, the notice points out.
There have been several reports of reckless and negligent drone use and, since 2010, Transport Canada has launched 50 investigations, the notice adds.
The privacy commissioner expressed concern two years ago that drones — some as small as birds or insects — could evade Canadian privacy law as people begin using the increasingly affordable aircraft to spy on others.
Drones can be outfitted with high-powered zoom lenses, night-vision or infrared-imaging systems, and video software that can recognize specific people, events or objects and flag movements or changes in routine.
These features demand an emphasis on personal protection in regulations and licensing standards, the commissioner's office says in its submission to the advisory council. "We believe strong technical safeguards and operating procedures need to acknowledge privacy risks quite plainly."
Unmanned aerial vehicles are used for a wide range of government-related and commercial applications including agricultural surveys, cinematography, police investigations, meteorology, and search and rescue.
The privacy commissioner says while federal officials have already flagged difficulties with flying too close to airports for safety reasons, advisory council members should also give thought to privacy concerns.
"Residential areas, schoolyards and shelters, hospitals and prisons, places of worship and memorial sites — all come to mind as spaces which, while perhaps public, carry with them some expectation of privacy when people use them," says the submission.
The office would not recommend "an outright prohibition" on drone usage in these areas, but wants the council to consider a best-practices approach to such personal spaces.
"Just as we would anticipate organizations concerned about their own security would be alarmed by sudden increases in the use of UAVs around their property, we would expect citizens could be similarly concerned if certain spaces were encroached upon."
The commissioner's office also advocates some means of identifying the operator of a drone — possibly through a licence plate, painted number or electronic signal — to help the complaint process when problems arise.
"Just as automobiles and boats on public roads and waterways carry readily identifiable markings, if UAVs are going to operate in public airspace, (Transport Canada) must consider some manner of system to provide for their identification," the submission says.
After sifting through the initial feedback to the advisory council, Transport will publish proposed regulations and seek additional input before finalizing them next year.