Drones have the potential to transform society in a multitude of ways – flying across backyards to deliver packages, spying through apartment windows, challenging security parameters at nuclear plants, offering police an alternative mechanism to apprehend suspects, being shot from the sky for trespassing and causing personal injuries due to mechanical failure and foul play.
Despite their growing prevalence, Canada does not yet have a comprehensive regulatory framework governing the use of drones.
Kristen Thomasen, a University of Ottawa Ph.D. student, is devoting her studies to scrutinizing the privacy implications of the use of this emerging robotic technology in public space.
“How will the law deal with not only the collection of information by drones, but the processing and sharing of that information by the technology? How will information be stored or protected,” Kristen asks. “Is there a risk that information will be used in ways we don’t expect, or want?”
Shortly after completing her Masters degree at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University, Kristen worked for an Ottawa-based NGO called CANADEM. She helped with humanitarian deployments, including sending lawyers to Afghanistan. The experience spurred her desire to go to law school.
Kristen believed the obvious choice for her studies was the Faculty of Law at the University of Ottawa. She was drawn to its social justice focus, and in particular, the Faculty expertise in law and technology. She soon turned her mind to considering the legal implications of robotic technologies.
“Professor Ian Kerr is the person in Canada doing groundbreaking work on law and robotics. Through his instruction, he opened my eyes to this new area of the law that I’m completely passionate about.”
Kristen was active during her studies, helping with the founding of the Women’s Legal Mentorship Program, doing an Internship at the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Alberta and working as research assistant to Professor Kerr, among other things.
After obtaining her degree, she clerked at the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench and subsequently at the Supreme Court of Canada for Madame Justice Rosalie Abella, who also became a mentor.
“She inspired me, talking about her own career and how she would take on opportunities to engage, to contribute, to do something positive.”
This helped Kristen choose the next logical step in her career, to embark on her Ph.D. under the supervision of Professor Kerr as a Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholar.
Kristen’s Ph.D. education has been comprehensive. In addition to working on her research project, she co-taught the Law of Contracts with Professor Kerr, an incredibly valuable practical experience for a young academic. She also had the opportunity to assist with major funding applications, developing important skills necessary for all researchers.
“It’s hard to fully express how grateful I am for Ian’s constant support, encouragement, and real sponsorship of me as a future academic. He has been so important to my career.”
Through funding from the Michael Smith Foreign Study Supplement, Kristen also spent the summer of 2016 at the Tilburg Institute for Law and Technology researching how the Netherlands and the European Union are regulating privacy and robotic technologies.
In January, she will realize her career ambitions, becoming an Assistant Professor of Law, Robotics and Society at the Faculty of Law of the University of Windsor.
“I’m focusing on drones and their implications for privacy right now, with plans to broaden my focus to other robotic technologies and artificial intelligence.”
As artificial intelligence progresses and as drones become increasingly autonomous, Kristen Thomasen’s research will undoubtedly help lawmakers and courts find practical solutions to protect our rights.