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No, the City of Whitehorse should not have drones — at least not now

The city hasn’t shown it can control its anti-democratic impusles. Until it can, no drones for you

Drones can give your indie film that one epic shot you otherwise couldn’t afford, or they can be used to harass your neighbours. They can be used to observe forest fires without putting pilots at risk, or for targeted anti-terrorism killings that may or may not violate international law.

It’s not a particularly novel observation that modern technologies are double-edged swords and require both the legal framework and ethical grounding to ensure they aren’t used for nefarious purposes.

In the wake of the City of Whitehorse’s new bylaw plan, which includes the possibility of using drones in the future to enforce trail rules or anti-dumping laws, we must suggest the city is not ready for such powerful — and easily misused — machines.

First, it’s important to note that the city has not yet committed to buying or using drones. The city’s bylaw review was merely a basket of ideas for changes in the department. Much of the review document is made up of eye-glazing flow charts relating to operational efficiencies and the like. Some of the ideas make a lot of sense, such as offering online payment options for downtown parking.

Second, both bylaw manager Dave Pruden and Mayor Dan Curtis have publicly pumped the brakes on any suggestion that the city is hellbent on buying drones. The city paid a consultant for ideas, the consultant gave them some. That’s all.

“We take the privacy of our citizens very, very seriously,” Curtis told the Whitehorse Star.

City manager Linda Rapp told the News this week that the city would not implement drone-backed bylaw enforcement without drawing up rules regarding what kind of data the drone would collect, who could view drone footage and what it would be used for.

That’s partly reassuring, but such codes often end off setting in stone loopholes and rationales that let civil servants do what they want anyway. Government is always better at gaming the system than the public is.

Furthermore, as Diane McLeod-McKay, the Yukon’s Information and Privacy Commissioner, said last week, the city is currently not subject to either federal or territorial access to information and privacy laws.

These laws aren’t perfect — ATIPP especially has become a legalistic shield for government secrecy rather than a tool for public transparency — but they would at least offer some basic safeguards for Whitehorse residents. They lay out ground rules for how surveillance data would be used and how the city would have to secure that data.

The Yukon government’s promised new ATIPP legislation, coming this fall, we’re told, should absolutely extend to Yukon municipalities. It should begin with the City of Whitehorse, which has the capacity to implement it, and extend over time to smaller communities. This should happen regardless of whether or not Whitehorse starts using drones.

There are also the practical considerations. As one reader pointed out this week, federal rules require two operators to run a drone. Is this really the most efficient way for the city to enforce rules on the trail? One bylaw officer on a $500 bike is probably more effective than two with a $25,000 drone.

Likewise, if the city really considers the bylaw situation on its fringes so serious as to warrant more enforcement, maybe it could repurpose the parking meter maids who patrol a few square blocks downtown two or three times a day, whether or not all the spaces are full.

Many of the city’s most popular trails are adjacent to the airport. Can drones survey those trails safely? There’s a reason why federal rules ban recreational drones within 5.6 km of airports.

Also, if the city did deploy a squadron of narc drones, people are absolutely going to shoot at them. They shouldn’t, but they will.

Meanwhile, the city itself has some way to go in proving to the public that is deserves to be trusted with such powerful technology. Let’s not forget that not too long ago city staff were proposing a draconian suite of “anti-bullying” measures that would have effectively criminalized being rude.

The bylaw, since scrapped, singled out behaviour “intended to … cause, fear, intimidation, humiliation, distress or other forms of harm to another person’s, feelings, self-esteem, or reputation.” I would suggest bureaucrats who attempt to indulge in such bad policy deserve to have their feelings hurt and their reputations called into question.

This is not to suggest that city intends to send out attack drones to blow up its critics — take cover, Wilf Carter! — only that it lately seems to have trouble controlling some of its worst anti-democratic impulses.

Drones should be completely off the table until the city has its own policies in place, until it is subject to transparency rules imposed by the YG, and until city hall proves it can be trusted with such devices. Then and only then should council consider drones as an enforcement option.

Contact Chris Windeyer at editor@yukon-news.com

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