South Africa: City of Cape Town Plan to Acquire Drones

Computing

Shortly after referring to its CCTV system as "Big Brother" and expressing support for public video surveillance, the City of Cape Town has revealed that it is in the "planning phase" of a camera drone project.

Last week, JP Smith, the City's Mayco Member for Safety and Security, said in a meeting with the police that the City aims to test drones within the next two months.

In an interview with GroundUp, Smith confirmed and elaborated on the City's plans. He said that different departments within the City - Metro Police, Disaster Management, Fire and Rescue and Engineering departments - have had to spend money on hiring helicopters for aerial surveillance. The acquisition of a drone (for around R600,000) could be more cost-effective.

Drones would be used to monitor land occupations, crime, scrap yards suspected of harbouring stolen copper, shack fires and disasters. Two companies are set to demonstrate their products to the City in the near future, Smith added.

Drones are already widely in use in South Africa -- in commercial filming, anti-poaching operations and for recreational use. In June, a Pretoria based company, Desert Wolf, made international headlines for developing a drone (marketed as a "riot control copter") that could spray tear gas and fire rubber bullets at protesters. At the time, the company revealed that an unnamed mining company had ordered 25 such units.

However, the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) has warned that, in the absence of legal guidelines for drone use, operators are breaking the law when flying these devices.

In response to growing confusion around the legalities for drone use, SACAA brought out an advisory in June stressing that no Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS), as drones are formally known, complies with the requirements for operating an aircraft in South African civil airspace. This absence of regulations is to be rectified by March 2015, the deadline given for interim standards for case-by- case allowances. Smith said that he is aware of the current restrictions on drone use.

The City already has a comprehensive CCTV system, which it uses to monitor crime, including social protests. In a press statement, "Big Brother zooms in on criminals", the City claims that the system has been successful in crime fighting and it intends to expand the network.

Jane Duncan, University of Johannesburg professor and author of Rise of the Securocrats, says that the crime prevention benefit of extensive CCTV is debatable when weighed up against threats to citizens' privacy and democratic freedoms. The sophistication and manoeuvrability of drone technology means that it has far more potential to be invasive than CCTV cameras.

"International precedents show that a certain threshold of risk to personal privacy is crossed when surveillance drones are acquired and deployed by the state," she said.

"The potential for near universal surveillance without detection and for a cross-over from public to private surveillance become real concerns. It presents a new and unique threat to South Africans' constitutional right to privacy."

Duncan said that government camera drone projects should be stalled until they can be scrutinised by the independent Information Regulator, the establishment of which is prescribed in the Protection of Personal Information Act. One of the Information Regulator's functions would be to monitor compliance to the Act's protection of South Africans' personal information. Existing CCTV systems should also be screened by the Information Regulator for contraventions of the Act, Duncan said.

Source: GroundUp 10 September 2014