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Critics raise privacy concerns as Ontario eyes use of highway-patrol drones

Adam Sax's Oakville, Ont.-based company Sky Guys is among dozens of firms selected by the provincial government to work toward a technology that could help enforce traffic laws along highways.

J.P. MOCZULSKI/The Globe and Mail

Imagine unmanned aircraft flying along the highway, using powerful cameras to keep an eye on drivers and making sure they're following the rules.

That possible future is one step closer with an agreement recently announced between the Ontario government and a Toronto-area technology company.

The government support could lead to drones monitoring sections of highway as soon as next year, raising concerns about privacy and intrusion into the personal lives of citizens.

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The Sky Guys was one of a dozen companies or consortiums chosen by the provincial government to work toward a technology that could help enforce the rules of high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes. The use of these lanes is now monitored by the Ontario Provincial Police and provincial statistics show that between 5 per cent and 10 per cent of the people using the lanes are scofflaws.

Adam Sax, president of Oakville-based The Sky Guys, said that drone technology is more nimble and efficient than simply mounting cameras along the highway.

"In order to have static cameras, you need to have lots of them," he said in an interview from Miami. "When you have a [flying] platform … it reduces the cost dramatically."

The solution his company is working on is a drone Mr. Sax described as being nearly four metres across, with a range of 1,500 kilometres. It takes off and lands vertically and can stay aloft for 24 hours, he said.

According to Mr. Sax, the technology will be good enough to read the windshield sticker some solo drivers use to buy their way into the carpool lanes. The drones would fly themselves, he explained, although a person would monitor them from a distance and be ready to take control if necessary.

"The feasibility is there … in terms of the technology, we're almost there," Mr. Sax said.

Brad Duguid, Ontario Minister of Economic Development and Growth, was unavailable to comment Friday. His office issued a statement in which he characterized the government's investment as a way to use "innovative technologies to solve everyday problems."

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He added that "all solutions developed will need to adhere to the relevant regulations, including privacy regulations."

The statement acknowledges the hurdles that remain.

Under current Transport Canada regulations, drones are not permitted to fly out of visual range of their operator.

And Sky Guys, which says its software will obscure identifying details, would have to reassure those concerned about a flying camera capable of seeing into their vehicle.

"It's nobody's business who is driving with whom, at what time of day," said Ann Cavoukian, the former information and privacy commissioner of Ontario, who now heads the Privacy by Design Centre of Excellence at Ryerson University.

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