From Helmand to Merseyside: Unmanned drones and the militarisation of UK policing

Serious questions must be asked about the use of military-style unmanned drones, pioneered in the war in Afghanistan, in domestic policing.

In February of this year, Merseyside Police became the UK first police force to routinely deploy unmanned drones for normal policing duties. Trialling a small, German machine, weighing less than a kilogram, the Force began  to explore how unmanned drones similar to those use to launch lethal raids in Pakistan, Afghanistan might be used to police major events, monitor traffic and address problems of anti-social disorder in Liverpool.

Whilst not equipped with weapons, civilian  police drones like the one in Liverpool are equipped with digital closed circuit TV. These can record extremely high-resolution images, in the visible and intra-red parts of the electromagnetic spectrum, from heights of  500m or more. Captured data is fed back to controllers from the high-definition cameras, radar devices or infrared sensors mounted on machines. At 100m hovering height, the Merseyside police force’s drone is barely noticeable from the ground. The drone has a built-in speaker to allow instructions to be relayed to civilians on the ground.

The Merseyside deployment is merely one of the  first, tentative step within a much wider push by arms contractors and security and  technology corporations. Supported by Governments, these are working extremely hard to ensure that the deployment of aerial drones for policing purposes quickly saturates UK airspace and becomes completely normal and taken for granted.  We thus face a pivotal moment in the evolution of civilian surveillance by electronic means, both in the UK and other western democracies. This moment  raises four particular concerns.

First, the intensifying cross-overs between the use of drones to deploy lethal force in the war zones of Asia and the Middle East, and their introduction within western airspace, need to be stressed. The European Defence Agency, for example, a body funded by the UK and other European governments,  is lobbying hard to support the widespread diffusion of drones within UK and EU policing and security as a  means to bolster the existing strengths of European security corporations like BAE systems, EADS and Thales within  booming global markets for armed and military drones. The global market for drones is by far the most dynamic sector in the global airline industry. The current annual market of $2.7 billion is predicted to reach $8.3 billion by 2020 and $55 billion is likely to be spent on drones in the next decade. A specific concern of the EU is that European defense and security corporations are failing to stake claims within booming global drone markets whilst US and Israeli companies clean up.

Second, in the widening deployment of drones, certain key events and deployments are likely to act as shop-windows to showpiece the technology as a means of encouraging further deployments. In the UK, the South Coast Partnership (SCP), for example -- a project lead by Kent Police involving five other police forces working in partnership with BAE Systems -- plans to pilot the introduction of drones to routinely monitor the Channel for the UK Borders Police, before pushing to extending the technology nationwide. Their stated aim is to foster the introduction of drones "into the routine work of the police, border authorities and other government agencies" across the UK. The drones they seek to deploy have already been deployed regularly in the Afghanistan war.  The deployment of both civilian and military (RAF) ‘Reaper’ drones to monitor the 2012 London Olympics, as part of the largest security operation ever seen in the UK,  is also likely to be a major catalyst.

Third, what scholars of surveillance term ‘function-creep’ is likely to be a key feature of drone deployments. The SCP working groups include representatives from theSerious and Organised Crime Agency, HM Revenue and Customs,  the Maritime and Fisheries Agency, and the UK Border Agency. Not surprisingly, this group has drawn up a wide range of potential uses for drones. The Guardian’s Freedom of Information requests have revealed that the Partnership’s list of potential applications of drones already  includes addressing  "fly-posting, fly-tipping, abandoned vehicles, abnormal loads, waste management"  and “[detecting] theft from cash machines, preventing theft of tractors and monitoring antisocial driving.” The SCP’s view is that the routine deployment of drones would "greatly extend" the police’s surveillance capacity and would "revolutionise policing."

Finally, it is startling that the main concern so far in public policy debates about the introduction of military-standard surveillance drones into routine police practice in Western countries has surrounded the (very real) dangers of collision with other aircraft.  On January 26th,  Merseyside Police used the drone to pursue two suspects in a car. One was arrested; the other was followed by the drone. It was revealed by the Guardian newspaper that Merseyside Police had failed to gain a license  from the UK’s Civilian Aviation Authority and flights were subsequently suspended until this approval had been gained.

So far, broader concern about the regulation and control of drone surveillance of British civilian life has been notable by its absence. And yet the widespread introduction of almost silent, pilotless drones with military-standard imaging equipment raises major new questions about the way in which the UK as a ‘surveillance society’. Is the civilian deployment of such drones a justified and proportionate response to civilian policing needs or a thinly-veiled attempt by security corporations to build new and highly profitable markets? Once deployed, what ethical and regulatory guidelines need to be in place to govern drone deployment and the ‘targeting’ of drone sensors? Above all, are transparent regulatory systems in place to prevent law enforcement agencies from abusing radical extensions in their powers to vertically and covertly spy on all aspects of civilian life 24 hours a day?

About the author

Stephen Graham is Professor of Cities and Society at Newcastle University. His latest book, Cities Under Siege: The New Military Urbanism, is published through Verso.