The truth about po­lice drones? They’ll spy on us, re­place bob­bies on the beat — and let real crim­i­nals get away

Daily Mail - - News - By Ross Clark

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.

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