Vic police beach drones ‘gross violation of privacy’

By Shannon Jenkins

Monday December 2, 2019

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Privacy advocates have criticised Victoria Police for its plan to use drones to keep watch over public beaches this coming summer.

Police in the North West and Southern Metropolitan regions launched the initiative — named Operation Summersafe — on Sunday, which will run until March.

Local police will work alongside the Public Order Response Team, Mounted Branch, Water Police, Drone Unit and Dog Squad to “proactively detect” offending in public spaces. They will also work with local councils, Surf Live Saving Victoria, local traders and community groups during the operation.

The operation will run in Williamstown, Altona, and from St Kilda to the Mornington Peninsula, at beaches, shopping precincts, and public transport hubs.

Charity group Digital Rights Watch has questioned the need for drones to be used on the state’s beaches. Chair Tim Singleton Norton described it as a “gross violation of privacy”.

“Is it necessary and proportionate for police officers to constantly surveil large numbers of the public, often in a state of undress? For members of the public to have their bodies subjected to surveillance in these circumstances is invasive and often deeply uncomfortable,” he said.

“Imagine, you are on the beach in your togs and at any moment there could be a police officer — male or female — observing you from the sky? It’s not just a dampener on summer relaxation time, it’s downright creepy.”

Commander Libby Murphy said there was a rise in anti-social behaviour from large groups of young people on beaches last year, and these groups would face a strong police presence in the coming months.

“There will be a focus on using real-time intelligence and technology through the Drone Unit to detect and deter offending, giving us the ability to flexibly deploy resources to where they’re most needed,” she said.

Victorian Public Sector privacy guidelines state that surveillance technology must only be used if “necessary, proportionate and for a legitimate purpose related to the activities of the organisation”, and shouldn’t be used in places where people may “reasonably expect to have a degree of privacy”.

Singleton Norton said police should be more transparent about how the drones would operate and possible privacy threats before they take to the skies.

“Our beaches are public areas that everyone should feel free to use without the scrutiny of someone watching from a control room far afield,” he said.

“Of course we want our law enforcement officers to have all the necessary means to do their job of protecting the public, but this must come hand in hand with appropriate oversights and provision of more straightforward solutions like providing secure storage options for beachgoers to prevent theft.”

The state government announced the establishment of a specialist drone unit in July. Police expect to have at least 50 drones available and up to 70 specialist operators trained across the state by mid next year.

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