Sunday, January 24, 2010

Police to use military drones to spy on public


Police in the UK are planning to use unmanned spy drones, controversially deployed in Afghanistan, for the routine covert monitoring of the public, in a significant expansion of covert state surveillance.

The arms manufacturer BAE Systems, which produces a range of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for war zones, is adapting the military-style planes for a consortium of government agencies led by Kent police.

The Civil Aviation Authority, which regulates UK airspace, has been told by BAE and Kent police that civilian UAVs would "greatly extend" the government's surveillance capacity and "revolutionise policing". The CAA is currently reluctant to license UAVs in normal airspace because of the risk of collisions with other aircraft.

BAE drones are programmed to take off and land on their own, stay airborne for up to 15 hours and reach heights of 20,000ft, making them invisible from the ground.

Previously, Kent police has said the drone scheme was intended for use over the English Channel to monitor shipping and detect immigrants crossing from France. However, the documents suggest the maritime focus was, at least in part, a public relations strategy designed to minimise civil liberty concerns.

"There is potential for these [maritime] uses to be projected as a 'good news' story to the public rather than more 'big brother'," a minute from the one of the earliest meetings, in July 2007, states.

Behind closed doors, the scope for UAVs has expanded significantly. Working with various policing organisations as well as the Serious and Organised Crime Agency, the Maritime and Fisheries Agency, HM Revenue and Customs and the UK Border Agency, BAE and Kent police have drawn up wider lists of potential uses.

One document lists "[detecting] theft from cash machines, preventing theft of tractors and monitoring antisocial driving" as future tasks for police drones, while another states the aircraft could be used for road and railway monitoring, search and rescue, event security and covert urban surveillance.

Under a section entitled "Other routine tasks (Local Councils) – surveillance", another document states the drones could be used to combat "fly-posting, fly-tipping, abandoned vehicles, abnormal loads, waste management".

Military drones have been used extensively by the US to assist reconnaissance and airstrikes in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Their use in war zones has been blamed for high civilian death tolls.

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