Surveillance Drones

(2013 to 2014)

A research project exploring the development and privacy implications of drone aircraft, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) in Canada.

Surveillance Drones: Privacy Implications of the Spread of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) in Canada

A Report to the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, under the 2013-2014 Contributions Program
April 2014

By Ciara Bracken-Roche, David Lyon, Mark James Mansour, Adam Molnar, Alana Saulnier and Scott Thompson


In May 2014 an Ottawa resident asked the City to investigate why a drone was buzzing round the neighbourhood.[1] He discovered that even finding the right department to call was not straightforward. But many other Canadians are likely to have similar experiences because drone use is - so to speak - on the rise.

Drones, officially called "unmanned aerial vehicles," are used in Canada primarily for surveillance of various kinds, although photographers and film crews are also enthusiastic to exploit their capabilities. Understandably, the industry objects to the term "drones" because of the military connotations, but "drone" is the common term. It is unlikely that the Ottawa citizen was concerned about possible warheads, just about what the machine could see and why it was watching.

This report shares the resident's interest in where drones came from, what they are used for and in particular, what new challenges they raise for privacy, civil liberties and human rights. The angle taken refers especially to the commercial sphere (and thus is subject to PIPEDA), although as we note, the public-private sector distinction is more and more blurred today.[2] Interestingly, UAV production owes a lot to Canadian innovations, and a short version of that story is told here.

The findings: The number of surveillance drones being flown in Canada is increasing rapidly year by year and for many purposes, some of which are unclear. We provide statistics from Access to Information and Privacy (ATIP) requests. Drones are keenly marketed by a growing group of manufacturers and their use is overseen by Transport Canada and Industry Canada. We interviewed key players. We offer a snapshot of Canadian opinion on drone development that hints strongly about where the sensitive issues lie. We commissioned a survey in 2014.

The report offers facts and insights on each of these areas, leading up a section that situates drones in relation to privacy. We are entering unknown territory in some ways - for example, UAVs can operate high above those caught in the camera who will neither see the machine or hear its drone. This is quite different from, say, fixed and visible cameras in the street for which the official guidelines recommend warning signage.

Many related issues are touched upon before we offer several clear and practical recommendations that need immediate attention if drone development in Canada is to proceed in a way that respects basic privacy rights.

[1] Jon Willing, "City of Ottawa investigates drone aircraft powers," Ottawa Citizen, May 29 (2014),

[2] See Colin Bennett, Kevin Haggerty, David Lyon and Valerie Steeves, eds., Transparent Lives: Surveillance in Canada, (Athabasca University Press, 2014), available for free PDF download, see:

Download the PDF of the report here.