Journal article

The dawn of the age of the drones: an Australian privacy law perspective

15 Sep 2014

Examines Australia's privacy laws in relation to unmanned aerial vehicles, to identify deficiencies that may need to be addressed.


Suppose a homeowner habitually enjoys sunbathing in his or her backyard, protected by a high fence from prying eyes, including those of an adolescent neighbour. In times past such homeowners could be assured that they might go about their activities without a threat to their privacy. However, recent years have seen technological advances in the development of unmanned aerial vehicles (‘UAVs’), also known colloquially as drones, that have allowed them to become reduced in size, complexity and price. UAVs today include models retailing to the public for less than $350 and with an ease of operation that enables them to serve as mobile platforms for miniature cameras. These machines now mean that for individuals like the posited homeowner’s adolescent neighbour, barriers such as high fences no longer constitute insuperable obstacles to their voyeuristic endeavours. Moreover, ease of access to the internet and video sharing websites provides a ready means of sharing any recordings made with such cameras with a wide audience. Persons in the homeowner’s position might understandably seek some form of redress for such egregious invasions of their privacy. Other than some form of self-help, what alternative measures may be available?

Under Australian law this problem yields no easy answer. In this country, a fractured landscape of common law, Commonwealth and state/territory legislation provides piecemeal protection against invasions of privacy by cameras mounted on UAVs. It is timely, at what may be regarded as the early days of the drone age, to consider these laws and to identify deficiencies that may need to be addressed lest, to quote words that are as apt today as they were when written over 120 years ago, ‘modern enterprise and invention … through invasions upon [their] privacy, [subject victims] to mental pain and distress, far greater than could be inflicted by mere bodily injury.’

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