Anita Grahame had just gotten out of the shower, had wrapped a towel around her waist and was walking around her fifth floor unit as she had done many times before. Suddenly, her husband, Nick, said, “What’s that noise?” and they looked up to see a drone filming them just metres away on their Sydney Northern Beaches unit balcony.

“It felt like such an invasion of privacy,” says Anita, as the drone continued to hover. “Nick went straight out there and stood in front of it. It was on our balcony patio looking in and it was close enough that we could have touched it. 

“Nick just gave it ‘the finger’ and it took off,” says Anita, 55. “I rang the police. But by the time they turned up, the drone had well and truly gone and the police said there was nothing they could do unless they caught the person operating the drone in the act, which is very hard to do.”

Since the drone episode, Anita says she has felt very angry. She says it has affected how she behaves in her own home, now having to put the blinds down if she wants some privacy. “We bought this unit so we could have the windows open and now we feel we can’t do that as much. 

“People deserve to have their own privacy. I mean what if a drone flew in and found a way to take photos of your personal details?”

Anita says she believes private citizens have very little rights when it comes to drones. She put in an complaint to the Civil Aviation Authority (CASA), who are responsible for drones in relation to people’s (and other aircraft) safety. “You can put in a complaint online,” says Anita, “which we did.”

“I hate the fact that you can be in your own home and have a machine filming you, and you don’t know where it is going to end up, I mean it could end up on social media for all you know,” says Anita. “You don’t know what the motives are of the people with drones who are filming you. How do you know if they’re actually casing the joint to rob you? 

“The dangers of drones need to be looked at. I am all for drones being used for good [purposes] like in surf lifesaving or to protect wildlife, but I don’t see why they’re allowed to be flying around in built up [residential] areas,” says Anita. 

Other cases involving drones and breaches of privacy have been reported. A Darwin woman, Karli Hyatt, was skinny dipping in her backyard pool when a drone appeared, filming her. She says the whole experience was “bewildering” and she didn’t know which authority to approach about complaining or taking action against the drone operator. 

There has been a Senate Committee which looked into regulations covering drones, but their recommendations weren’t taken up by the Federal Government. 

There is now a second Senate Committee currently being held, which will report back to the government on regulations concerning drones, including privacy, by the end of this year, according to a CASA spokesperson, Peter Gibson. But he says it’s not CASA’s job to deal with invasions of privacy.

Indeed, some legal experts say the privacy laws in Australia haven’t kept up with modern technology and this needs to be addressed. Flying a drone over private property such as Anita’s or Karli’s is not illegal, nor is filming an individual. If either women had wanted to sue the drone operator for breach of privacy, there are no laws that say they can.

Indeed, unlike many other countries, there are no common laws in Australia that cover breaches of privacy. 

At it currently stands, drones are not allowed to fly within 30 metres of residential buildings, boats, cars or people and if they are closer, fines of up to $9000 can apply if it involves breaches of safety. Ten fines have been issued in 2017, says Peter Gibson.

The laws governing drones means that pilots of commercial drones weighing 2kg or more need to be registered with the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) but that’s not the case for smaller recreational drones you can buy in shops: they do not need to be registered.

While it could be argued that drones haven’t become a public nuisance yet, some councils in South Australia and New South Wales have banned the use of private drones in public parks and playgrounds following concerns about safety and privacy, and also to protect wildlife and fauna. 

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