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Home Office Plans To Use Military-Grade Drones To Pursue Suspects And Monitor Protests Are Raising Privacy Concerns

The Hermes 900 drone was first used in the 2014 Gaza conflict by the Israeli military(Wikimedia/Creative Commons)

7 min read

Plans by the National Police Air Service (NPAS) to use Israeli military-grade drones to replace helicopters and aeroplanes have raised concerns among privacy campaigners.

Initial tests of the systems took place alongside a wider trial organised by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA), which is considering using the technology to assist rescue operations.

Policing minister Kit Malthouse welcomed the news on Monday, saying that the trials “may point to a new and more effective way for the police’s air service to do its vital job”. 

But Kevin Blowe, coordinator at the Network for Police Monitoring (Netpol) campaign group, said he was “horrified” by the plans, arguing that they “massively increase the capacity for intrusive surveillance on the public”.

The use of drones in policing is not new—Devon and Cornwall Police and Dorset Police jointly became the first UK police forces to adopt the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in November 2015. But, the scale of the technology used by these forces and those trialled by NPAS are very different.

One UAV model used by British police is the DJI Mavic 2 Enterprise, which costs around £2,800, weighs less than a kilogram, and has a 29-minute battery life with an operating range of 5km. 

The Israeli-made Elbit Systems Hermes 900 craft being trialled by the NPAS and MCA, meanwhile, has a 15-metre wingspan, weighs 970kg, and can fly for up to 36 hours at altitudes of 30,000 feet.

Part of the controversy of the trials stems from the fact that the Hermes 900 model was first used by the Israeli Air Force during the 2014 Gaza conflict when it was used to conduct surveillance on Hamas militants.

Drones manufactured by Elbit Systems have also been linked with airstrikes on Palestinian civilians, according to a report revealed by The Intercept in 2018.

The company has been targetted by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement which protests Israeli policies towards Palestinians, resulting in both insurance firm AXA and bank HSBC divesting from Elbit in recent years.

Home Office officials are now looking at whether similar drone systems could replace police fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters for tasks such as protest surveillance, pursuing suspects and missing person searches. 

The key ethical challenge facing the National Police Air Service is to somehow reconcile security needs and privacy rights while still maintaining traditional policing-by-consent principles - Prof Peter Lee, University of Portsmouth

The use of these long-range UAVs, however, raises a number of wider concerns among experts, campaign groups and MPs alike, such as the civil liberty implications of long-range surveillance and the controversies surrounding the drone’s manufacturers.

“On one side is the responsibility of the Home Office and the police to protect the UK population, respond to disasters, investigate crime, control borders, find missing people, and more. Large UAVs like the Hermes 900 provide a potentially invaluable tool to support these activities,” Peter Lee, a specialist in drone ethics at the University of Portsmouth, told PoliticsHome.

“On the other side is a requirement to respect and protect individual rights to liberty and privacy when large amounts of data can be gathered very quickly.

“The key ethical challenge facing the National Police Air Service is to somehow reconcile security needs and privacy rights while still maintaining traditional policing-by-consent principles.”

Mr Blowe, from Netpol, favours the latter argument, believing that citizen’s rights outweigh the needs of law enforcement.

“[These drones] will massively increase the capacity for intrusive surveillance on the public and have enormous implications on everything from rights to privacy to the use of this technology on citizens exercising their democratic rights to protest against government policy,” he told PoliticsHome.

And, concerns such as these about the use of UAVs have been compounded the impact emergency coronavirus legislation is seen to be having on civil liberties.

Drones are an extreme, militaristic form of surveillance, we’ve seen too many examples of police using them aggressively in place of measured public health communications - Silkie Carlo, director of Big Brother Watch

New powers granted by the Coronavirus Bill in March made it easier for the police to use drones to enforce lockdown restrictions, by allowing them to be flown at a higher altitude and beyond the line of sight of the operating officer.

Derbyshire Police have since used drone footage to shame dog walkers and ramblers visiting the Peak District, while Surrey Police flew a “sky talk” drone playing a pre-recorded message to disperse groups talking a walk over the Easter weekend.

“Drones are an extreme, militaristic form of surveillance,” Silkie Carlo, director of Big Brother Watch, told The Times in April. 

“We’ve seen too many examples of police using them aggressively in place of measured public health communications. Police using drones to surveil and bark orders at members of the public is usually excessive and counterproductive.”

Those in favour of drone technology, however, believe that their use can be expanded if the legislation is sufficiently scrutinised. 

“The trial and potential roll-out of military-grade drones such as the Elbit Systems Hermes 900 in national police forces should be seen in the wider context of the emergency powers agreed to address the Covid-19 crisis,” said Alex Sobel, Labour MP and vice-chair of the APPG on Drones.

“Nobody can dispute that the pandemic is a genuine emergency and it is necessary to give the police powers of enforcement to respond to it. 

“However, in light of the new capabilities drones can provide—including facial recognition or the addition of non-lethal weapons—it is reasonable to call for robust scrutiny and clear and timely information to ensure we get it right.”

Few people would argue with using drones to help find a missing child or vulnerable person - Lord Toby Harris

Meanwhile, Lord Toby Harris, who sits on the national security strategy joint committee, argued that the use of any UAVs needs to be “proportionate to the harm or criminality that the police are seeking to prevent.”

He added: “Few people would argue with using drones to help find a missing child or vulnerable person, but the police would have to be able to defend the use if the investigation was into a much less serious matter, such as a parking offence.”

And, beyond the balancing act of civil liberty vs security, drones both large and small may have a wider benefit to the public in terms of cost and noise pollution.

Florence Eshalomi, Labour MP for Vauxhall, told PoliticsHome that she welcomes the use of long-range drones in built-up areas to reduce the impact on local residents.

“Representing an inner London constituency bordering Westminster and the protest near Parliament Square, I have received many complaints from residents about the use of police helicopters,” she said.

“I fully appreciate that the police need to use a range of measures during protests and other policing activities but this is not a sustainable or cost-effective use of police resource. 

She continued: “The noise nuisance caused by the helicopters hovering in one place for what can seem like hours above residential housing, especially late at night, makes it very difficult for local residents.”

But, whether long-range drones will soon replace helicopters and aeroplanes in UK policing is still uncertain, as NPAS officials claiming the change is still under consideration. 

Captain Ollie Dismore, Director of Flight Operations at the National Police Air Service said: “With continuous advances in UAV capabilities, UK policing is rightly seeking to explore the viability of platforms such as these for possible future use in delivering police air support nationally.

He added: “If this technology enables us to fulfil our national remit more efficiently and either as or more effectively than with our current assets, then it will be considered as part of a future national police air service fleet.”

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