Drones versus privacy on Rarotonga

Monday June 19, 2017 Written by Published in Local
This drone was spotted hovering above shoppers at the Punanga Nui markets one Saturday morning earlier this year. Most were unaware of the drone’s presence - and that they were probably being fi lmed. The drone’s operator is to the right, wearing a white t-shirt. 17061321 This drone was spotted hovering above shoppers at the Punanga Nui markets one Saturday morning earlier this year. Most were unaware of the drone’s presence - and that they were probably being fi lmed. The drone’s operator is to the right, wearing a white t-shirt. 17061321

With tourist season in full swing, the island is set to receive an influx in holidaymakers with their inevitable cameras, selfie sticks, GoPro video cameras and, more recently, drones.

 

And with more drones being seen in Rarotonga skies, locals have taken to Facebook in a bid to air their concerns about the growing popularity of the aerial devices.

Drones are used for crime prevention, detection and control; search and rescue; infrastructure monitoring; disaster management and mapping; coral reef monitoring; scientific research, and environmental exploration and protection.

But with drone technology becoming less expensive and more user-friendly, consumer level drones are also becoming more common.

Private businesses such as resorts on Rarotonga use drone footage in their marketing and advertising campaigns, as do private residents who dabble in photography and film-making.

Now many are questioning the lack of legislation surrounding the “flying cameras” and their ability to intrude in private property without the knowledge of tenants or owners. 

Operations coordinator for Rarotonga International Airport, Denise Turaki says there is an absence of laws governing new technology and the protection of social environments on Rarotonga, particularly when it comes to drones.

Currently drone users must inform aviation authorities if they wish to fly a drone or a kite or even a Chinese sky lantern, within 4km of the airport.

“We urge locals and tourists to let us (Aviation Authority) know if they plan on flying drones or kites or letting off lanterns. We can let individuals know what time there will be a gap in our flight schedule, as to ensure everyone and everything is safe,” Turaki said.

However, she admits there is only so much the Aviation Authority can do to keep an eye on drone users.

“We can only give warnings and hope people who are flying these aerial devices are smart enough to follow the correct procedures.

“We do have regulators working on legislation in regard to where drones can fly and the procedure that must be followed in order for (flying them) to be allowed,” she said.

Lawyer Mark Short offers an insight from a legal point of view.

“In the 1980s you could keep any roaming animal that destroyed your crops and this was accepted at the time as payment for damage done. There was no law to my knowledge that authorised this, however it was an accepted unwritten rule at the time.

“If this principle was to be adopted in this day and age, would the owner of a drone accept that any damage suffered by his drone for invading someone’s privacy is acceptable? Well, I doubt it.

“This is why we need laws and rules to govern what we do, even to the extent of taking our cases to court as shown in the rugby league saga,” he said.

Short and Turaki agree that the implementation of legislation and new laws are not the only issues. They say the time and resources necessary to support and pass new legislation are problematic. 

“Another pressing problem is the absence of resources to support new legislation that has been passed by parliament.

“An example of this is the Small Claims Tribunal that was passed over eight years ago - that hasn’t been set up because there are no funds for personnel and no funds to set up an office to administer and manage the Act, so nothing happens,” Short said.

Short says such deficiencies can mean individuals take issues into their own hands, an act not condoned by the police.

“If a drone hovers above someone and is causing a problem, especially if say they were sunbathing on a beach somewhere, then I wouldn’t be surprised if the drone was to meet an untimely death by a thrown rock.

“If, as a result of this, the owner approached the person who destroyed or damaged the drone, with the intention of claiming reparations for damage to property, then I am sure this case would raise some interesting arguments on whose rights would have precedence over the other,” Short said.

In a recent CI News street poll, the general census was that people on Rarotonga value their privacy, and believe that the private use of drones could hinder or harm this. Every resident questioned believed that new laws need to be actioned, to cover the growing popularity of drones.

Quite apart from aviation safety issues, there are also clear concerns at the outdated “horse and cart era” legislation that still exists in the Cook Islands, and or the absence of laws applying to modern electronic devices such as drones. 

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