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UK: Police expand use of drones to monitor political protests

By Chris Stonor

It was always inevitable that drones would be deployed to monitor crowds, but theguardian.com points out that protest marches and demonstrations are increasingly being targeted even in the United Kingdom.

Such drone monitoring has covered Black Lives Matter, Animal Rights and Extinction Rebellion protests/marches as well as anti-HS2 demonstrations during the last year. While privacy campaigners say the police’s expanded use of unmanned craft is occurring where regulations “remain fuzzy”, the police involved refute such claims.

The Guardian newspaper writes, “The campaign group Drone watch used freedom of information requests to ask police forces to detail its use of drones at protests from January to October 2020. The Surrey, Cleveland, Staffordshire, Gloucestershire and West Midlands forces said they had used drones at BLM protests. Cleveland at three BLM events, Gloucestershire at two BLM protests and one lockdown protest, and West Midlands at three BLM protests.”

In South-West England, the Devon and Cornwall force and Avon and Somerset police also deployed drones at 15 events including a number of protests and public disorder incidents.

That thin line between employing drones for crowd safety and spying purposes is so narrow, a compromise may never be found. Although, the UK Police were rightly criticised for using unmanned craft during the first coronavirus lockdown last April, when they were deployed to monitor walkers in the Derbyshire Peak District.

A polling for Drone watch by Yonder shows that of 2,000 people questioned, 60% were worried about the effects on privacy and civil liberties, while 67% said they were concerned about safety implications.

The National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for the police use of drones, assistant Chief Constable Steve Barry, said, “Police use drones at protests to help inform policing tactics to keep everyone safe. Their use is well regulated and governed by the surveillance commissioner and information commissioner guidelines.”

Yet, Chris Cole of Drone watch retorted, “Police are adopting this new surveillance technology with little oversight or consent from the public. There seems to be little control over how the data is being gathered or stored with alarmingly worrying replies from the police indicating they do not understand what rights the public have in regard to accessing data.”

He continued, “This is just the tip of the iceberg. Despite serious public concern, the government is planning to liberalise airspace regulations to enable a whole raft of public agencies and private companies to operate drones freely in our airspace. Before that happens, it’s vital that there is a proper public debate about the limits of drone use and comprehensive privacy controls are put in place.”

Rosalind Comyn, the policy and campaigns manager at Liberty, offered an even stronger response, stating that “drone use was part of an alleged general assault on the right to protest from police and government, which particularly threatens people who are already marginalised and cut off from having their voices heard.”

She added, “Increased mass surveillance, whether through drones or other developing tools like facial recognition is designed to intimidate and control, and ultimately silence dissent.”

(News Source: https://www.theguardian.com/uk)

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