Surveillance drone grounded days after ‘success’

Spy drone Last Friday the papers were filled with Merseyside Police trumpeting the success of their airborne CCTV drone.

To avoid confusion, this little machine is not the unamanned drone (more commonly seen in Afghanistan) that we warned of last month, but instead a small, remote controlled helicopter-like device, operated by a policeman on the ground.

The force on Merseyside were overjoyed last week, because they had just made their first arrest using their new toy. The Daily Mail explained:

Using the device's on-board camera and thermal-imaging technology, the operator was able to pick up the suspect through his body heat and direct foot patrols to his location.

It led officers to a 16-year-old youth, who was hiding in bushes alongside the Leeds-Liverpool canal, in Litherland, Merseyside.

The drone, which measures 3ft between the tips of its four carbon fibre rotor blades, uses unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology originally designed for military reconnaissance.

The battery-powered device can have a range of cameras attached to its main body, including CCTV surveillance or thermal imaging cameras.

As Big Brother Watch said at the time, while the enhanced ability to catch criminals is welcomed, there needs to be stringent, clear, and easily accessible guidelines about how and when these drones can be deployed.
People already feel that there is excessive surveillance in the UK without the police flying around CCTV cameras to catch us littering or parking in the wrong place.

But today, Merseyside have flown their little drone into a little more controversy. As reported in the Guardian:

…the attempt to claim credit for the UK's first arrest using a surveillance drone backfired tonight after it emerged the force itself could face prosecution because officers flew the surveillance aircraft without permission – a criminal offence.

The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), which regulates UK airspace, confirmed it was investigating Merseyside police over the apparently unauthorised use of its drone to pursue the 16-year-old after he fled from a suspected stolen car in Bootle.

This judgement is very welcome. In the words of Bruce Schneier, "It is poor civic hygiene to install technologies that could someday facilitate a police state" – there is little doubt that these CCTV drones would end up being used for the wrong purposes.

Privacy, excessive cost, or unauthorised use of airspace; Britain would be better off with fewer surveillance cameras.

By Dylan Sharpe