The truth about police drones? They’ll spy on us, replace bobbies on the beat — and let real criminals get away
BRITONS are among the most spied on people in the world, with more than six million CCTV cameras monitoring us as we go about our lives.
Now, we have inched another step closer to an all- out Surveillance Society.
As the Mail reported yesterday, Devon and Cornwall Police are launching the first 24/ 7 ‘drone unit’, and 21 other police forces are experimenting with using drones to fight crime.
This is a terrifying prospect on so many levels. It will affect the way we are policed, and it is a technology with enormous potential for abuse of privacy.
Yes, there are situations when drones would be an asset: for example, when a prisoner has escaped and needs to be tracked across rough ground; or after a major incident, when drone cameras could be crucial to security and emergency services.
After the initial outlay, drones will be cheaper than helicopters, which cost more than £1,200 a flight.
But I fear what will happen if police forces — and then other law- enforcing authorities including councils — are given carte blanche to use them.
How long will it be before we are fobbed off with drones rather than real officers on the beat, on foot or in cars?
Look, you don’t need a community police officer, we will be told: you’ve got a drone watching over your neighbourhood 24 hours a day.
Assistant Chief Constable Steve Barry, the national police spokesman on drones, hinted as much yesterday when he said they would give police chiefs an opportunity to ‘rationalise’ whether it is cheaper or more efficient to send an officer or a machine.
The advent of these ‘eyes in the sky’ will inevitably draw manpower and financial resources away from existing police operations.
Personnel will need to be trained in their use and maintenance, and, most crucially, in how to analyse the hours of footage they will produce. Last year, Surrey and Sussex police forces were granted £250,000 by the Home Office to buy a fleet of drones.
Is it coincidence — or a sign of the future — that the Sussex force has also committed to taking 500 officers off the streets by 2020?
Surrey Police, meanwhile, are cutting their criminal investigation unit from 393 to 147, saying they will no longer investigate crimes such as petrol theft and shoplifting.
Police and ministers will try to justify the use of drones by claiming they are needed to fight serious crime, particularly terrorism.
But we have been here before with CCTV and we know the consequences of substituting technology for people.
In 2013, the Security Industry Authority reported there were 5.9 million CCTV cameras in Britain; used by the police, by councils and by the public and private sectors.
There are undoubtedly many cases in which a serious crime has been solved or a missing person found thanks partly to CCTV footage.
But, as I know from research for my book, The Road To Southend Pier: One Man’s Struggle Against The Surveillance Society, serious crime accounts for a tiny fraction of the day-to- day business of CCTV teams.
Little wonder, then, that a decade ago four in five CCTV images requested by the police and the courts turned out to be useless.
Things have improved since, but for the real ‘ value’ of CCTV, consider just one statistic: 4,000 motorists a day are fined for straying into bus lanes, raising more than £30 million in fines in 20142015, according to a Freedom of Information request.
Between 2010 and 2016, Hammersmith & Fulham took in £12 million in fines from just one yellow box junction in South-West London.
It is not just cameras high up on walls or speed cameras by the roadside: dozens of councils employ litter wardens wearing body cameras to catch people dropping cigarette ends and the like.
In one case in the West Midlands, a woman was fined £75 for feeding bread to ducks in a park! It’s hard not to conclude that whenever the authorities find a new way to film us, pretty soon it will start costing you money.
Was this how we were told CCTV would be used when it was introduced? Of course not. The public has never consented to this overbearing use of technology. It has been slipped past us bit by bit.
Surveillance technology, such as CCTV cameras and drones, skews law enforcement toward minor offences.
It is easy to scoop up thousands of people who make a mistake and veer into a bus lane. It is much harder to use CCTV to capture a hardened criminal who knows how to avoid the cameras.
Look what has happened with litter fines. A 2013 BBC survey found that fines for littering by English councils rocketed from 727 in 1997 to 63,883 in 2012.
Drop a cigarette end in a town centre and there is a very high chance you will be caught. But dump a load of sofas and fridges on a remote country lane and there is virtually a zero chance that a camera will be watching.
It takes time and effort to trace fly-tippers. How much easier for authorities to say they are ‘tackling the litter problem’ by trying to impress us with the numbers of minor offenders caught.
I am not being alarmist. There is every expectation that drones will become a routine part of policing. It isn’t hard to imagine how ‘creeping surveillance’ will develop.
Police won’t be able to resist using drones to catch people having sex in the sand dunes on the coast or to follow someone suspected of leaping off a bus without paying.
As for councils, think of the opportunities presented to identify ‘criminals’ who have built green houses without planning permission.
Drones have vastly more potential for unjustified invasions of privacy than CCTV cameras.
It is straightforward to devise regulations that ensure CCTV is only used in public spaces — though it didn’t stop five ‘ peeping tom’ CCTV operators in Cardiff who, in 2007, were fined after training cameras on the windows of neighbouring houses.
But it will be virtually impossible for police to use drones in urban areas without crossing over private gardens and terraces.
How easy it would be for a drone to film images of people sunbathing naked or worse, which the operators might find too tempting to ignore.
There are precedents: in 2015, an officer in Sheffield was suspended for using helicopter thermal imaging equipment to film people having sex at dogging sites, and keeping the footage.
There is a question of public safety, too. In 2015, Amazon was reported to be selling 10,000 drones a month, and the use of drones by delivery services is a reality.
With such crowded airspace, it is only a matter of time before someone in Britain is killed by an out- of- control drone, or the safety of aircraft is compromised.
We’ve seen how police can get carried away in high-speed car chases; the last thing we want is high- speed drones buzzing over crowded areas.
I am not arguing for a ban on the police and other law enforcement bodies using drones. But before they become more widespread we need regulations controlling their use — and stiff penalties for those break them.
If not, drones will be just another tool to be deployed by our Big Brother society to snoop on law-abiding citizens and minor offenders in order to rake in cash and boost crime-fighting statistics.