An animal welfare group’s use of surveillance drones is set to pose an unprecedented challenge to Australian trespass and privacy laws.
Rights group Animal Liberation has recently announced that it will use an airborne surveillance drone to monitor farmers’ treatment of their livestock.
Executive director Mark Pearson told the ABC that drones will facilitate the prosecution of crimes notoriously difficult to prove. “No feedlot in Australia has ever been prosecuted for exposing their animals to excessive heat or cold, but we know … that this sort of thing happens all the time,” he said.
According to Pearson, animal rights groups are currently unable to gather sufficient evidence to bring such cases to court. He said that guilty farmers do not allow groups such as Animal Liberation onto their properties, and that fearful employees are often unwilling to testify in public. “So this is a very necessary instrument for us to legally obtain evidence that can be used in court.”
Farmers, however, have threatened to legally contest this activity. NSW Farmers Association President Fiona Simpson has said that it represents an unnecessary invasion of privacy, while other farmers have expressed concern about trespass on their property.
University of Sydney Torts lecturer, Professor Barbara McDonald, said that any court case surrounding the use of surveillance drones would be virtually without legal precedent. “This technology is so new that it’s difficult to know how a court would view the nature of such a device and its activities,” she said.
Current legal statutes do not afford corporations – including farmers – a citizen’s right to privacy.
Professor McDonald said this because they are not seen to be feeling entities.
“Privacy is about feelings, and whether or not someone will be embarrassed or upset by something about their lives becoming public. As corporations don’t have feelings, they would have to prove that it was something inherently private, such as a confidential business deal, for it to be protected,” she said.
According to McDonald, courts would be unlikely to view farming activities as worthy of legal protection. But she also said that, if farmers were able to prove that a drone had trespassed onto their land, any footage it had captured would not be able to be made public.
Farmers claiming a drone had committed trespass would have to prove that it had interfered with their use and enjoyment of the land. While airplanes and other high-flying devices are protected from legal action, drones – which reach maximum heights of 30m about ground – could be viewed as inappropriately intrusive.
“It’s possible that that argument would be accepted by a court. But it would be difficult…the closest we’ve ever come in Australia to a situation like that was in 1927, when it was successfully argued that a man who had shot his neighbour’s cat had committed trespass with the bullet he used,” McDonald said.
“In my personal opinion, we really need to update our surveillance statutes to reflect the new forms of intrusion and surveillance that are appearing all the time. Whether that would, or should, stop Animal Liberation from using drones, I can’t say, but I think that it’s a cause of concern for everyone that our laws aren’t equipped to deal with modern technology.”