RCMP expands its drone fleet as watchdogs worry Canadians may face aerial snoops

A look at latest in robotic capabilities

It's not surprising that law enforcement has embraced the use of unmanned aircraft but should ordinary law-abiding Canadians be worried?

Postmedia News reports the RCMP is expanding its fleet of drones with the purchase of three four-rotor helicopters called Qubes from California.-based AeroVironment Inc., which supplies the U.S. military with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

Of course, we shouldn't expect there'll be drones prowling Canadian skies looking to rain down Hellfire missiles or other weaponry on scofflaws — not yet, at least. But privacy watchdogs are worried the small aerial spies could be used to snoop on ordinary Canadians in the name of crime prevention.

The unarmed Qubes, small enough to fit in the trunk of a police cruiser, would allow officers to get a bird's-eye view of an accident scene or help with search-and-rescue operations, the Post says.

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The Qubes and their related accessories will cost about $270,000, the Post says. They'll be used by Mounties in Saskatchewan, which has taken a lead role in testing UAVs for the force.

“It’s starting to catch on more and more," RCMP Staff Sgt. Dave Domoney in Regina told the Post. "Eventually, I think you’ll see (unmanned aerial vehicles) in almost all the provinces."

The RCMP already have 18 Canadian-made UAVs, about half in Saskatchewan and the rest in Alberta, Manitoba, B.C., the N.W.T. and one at their Ottawa headquarters, the Post says.

The drones can help in accident reconstruction, give tactical officers help with identifying threats during critical incidents and help locate people over difficult terrain, proponents say.

But the Post notes privacy advocates are concerned despite police insistence there are no plans to use them for surveillance.

Ontario Information and Privacy Commissioner Ann Cavoukian, whose office published a wary report on UAVs last summer, said current Transport Canada guidelines on their use focus more on safety than invasion of privacy.

“There are unique privacy challenges posed, due to UAVs’ potential for constant surveillance from vantage points that are difficult to discern,” she wrote. “Special use restrictions and regulatory measures will likely be necessary, going forward.”

Concerns were raised last fall when Halton Regional Police in Ontario announced they'd discovered a large marijuana grow-op with a UAV, the Post reported, adding the landowner had given permission for the flyover.

Americans have become concerned police drones could be used to spy on people. A Nebraska state senator last week introduced a bill in the legislature barring UAVs' use to gather evidence in an investigation and making any such evidence inadmissible in court, according to the Lincoln Journal Star.

[ Related: Drones fly over Calgary snapping photos ]

The Post said the American Civil Liberties Union wants domestic UAVs deployed only with a warrant, during a hostage situation or other emergency or on “specific and articulable grounds to believe that the drone will collect evidence relating to a specific criminal act.”

Domoney said the Mounties will limit their use to accident reconstruction, search and rescue, major crime scenes and to aid tactical response teams, the Post said.

The force is close to completing a national policy on UAV use, Domoney said.