CCTV Drones: Policing By Remote Control

All we have of freedom, all we use or know –
this our fathers bought for us long and long ago.

– Rudyard Kipling, The Old Issue

A recent Guardian newspaper article (‘CCTV in the sky: police plan to use military-style spy drones’, 23rd January 2010[1]) reveals plans to use surveillance drones/Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) to spy on UK citizens. The project, called the South Coast Partnership, sees arms manufacturer BAE Systems teaming up with a “consortium of government agencies led by Kent police”.

The Guardian report states that:

Police in the UK are planning to use unmanned spy drones, controversially deployed in Afghanistan, for the ­”routine” monitoring of antisocial motorists, ­protesters, agricultural thieves and fly-tippers, in a significant expansion of covert state surveillance.

The Home Office’s ‘Science and Innovation Strategy 2009–12′ [2], published last year, confirms that the UK government has been exploring the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) as a policing “tool”, it states:

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles are likely to become an increasingly useful tool for the police in the future, potentially reducing the number of dangerous situations the police may have to enter and also providing evidence for prosecutions. However, we will need to investigate how such vehicles could be used, and their ability to provide high quality evidence for convictions and to support police operations in ‘real time’.

Secrecy of UAV development

Obtaining information about plans for civilian UAV deployment is not easy – the South Coast Partnership has no public website, appears to publish no documents and has not been discussed or debated in parliament – it operates below the radar of the public that it is the intention to surveil. As a result this article has been pulled together from a variety of disparate sources including many mainstream newspaper articles rather than original source documents. It is hoped that this patchwork of information will at least serve as a preliminary overview of this expanding field.

How it all started?

The South Coast Partnership project was launched at the Police Aviation Conference 2007 in the Hague, Netherlands and was sold primarily as a coastal/border patrol project. However rather tellingly a BAE Systems Press release of the launch [3] quotes Andrew Mellors, Head of Civil Autonomous Systems at BAE Systems, who said:

From 2012 fully autonomous unmanned air systems could be routinely used by border agencies, the police and other government bodies. These systems will be fully autonomous so that operators task the vehicles and receive the relevant imagery and intelligence direct to the ground control station in real time.

A December 2007 Sunday Times article [4] (‘Spy drone to patrol coast in hunt for people smugglers’, Sunday Times 2nd December 2007) whilst focusing primarily on the coastal patrol application of UAVs by Essex police also pointed out that:

It is understood the police have expressed interest in using the £5m drone to monitor crowds during demonstrations and events such as football matches.

The Sunday Times article also revealed that one of the UAVs being adapted by BAE Systems for the South Coast Partnership is the High Endurance Rapid Technology Insertion (Herti) which will fly above 20,000ft, with cameras powerful enough to see humans on boats as if they were a few feet away and capable of taking pictures in darkness using night vision lenses.

A November 2009 Essex local newspaper article [5] (‘Essex Police may use unmanned planes for surveillance’, 30th November 2009) reported that within two years UAVs could be flying in the skies over Essex supposedly to “help combat illegal immigration and drug smugglers”. The article revealed a few more of the players in the South Coast Partnership project: the UK Border Agency, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, and the Marine and Fisheries Agency. It was further noted that “the drones could also fly over major events, such as the V Festival, or major incidents”, with the ability to “read a number plate from 20,000ft and criminals will not know they are under surveillance.”

The civilian use of the Herti UAV was first mooted shortly after it was declassified from BAE’s “black” projects in July 2006. A BBC News Online article [6] that same month (‘BAE spyplane eyes commercial sector’, BBC News Online 20th July 2006) said:

Until now they have largely been the preserve of the generals. The US military routinely uses them over Iraq and Afghanistan. But now the world’s aerospace companies reckon they can make money by selling them to civilians too, for a wide range of tasks such as traffic control, border patrols, or crop and drought monitoring.

Drone, UAV, UAS?

The drone/UAVs being described here should not be confused with those already controversially in use by Police in the UK [7], as pointed out in a recent NeoConOpticon blog post [8]:

there are actually two types of unmanned aerial vehicle (UAVs): (i) the armed and unarmed ‘drone’ planes’ to which the Guardian report refers, and (ii) much smaller miniature spy planes. The latter are basically remote-controlled aircraft fitted with cameras

The US Department Of Defence Dictionary of Military Terms [9] defines the term Unmanned aerial vehicle as:

A powered, aerial vehicle that does not carry a human operator, uses aerodynamic forces to provide vehicle lift, can fly autonomously or be piloted remotely, can be expendable or recoverable, and can carry a lethal or nonlethal payload. Ballistic or semiballistic vehicles, cruise missiles, and artillery projectiles are not considered unmanned aerial vehicles. Also called UAV.

It defines the term drone as:

A land, sea, or air vehicle that is remotely or automatically controlled. See also remotely piloted vehicle; unmanned aerial vehicle.

And it defines unmanned aircraft system as:

That system whose components include the necessary equipment, network, and personnel to control an unmanned aircraft. Also called UAS.

Militarisation of the Police

The UAVs being developed by BAE are adapted from military hardware used in war zones to allow military personnel to kill people from the comfort of an office chair, often thousands of miles away from the “zone of fire”. Their use has been extremely controversial because of civilian casualties. A recent UK Home Office report on Pakistan [10] for instance points out that: “The limited tactical results achieved by these drone attacks have been overshadowed by the negative impact they have had on public opinion as a result of civilian casualties”. A BBC Radio 4 documentary ‘Robo Wars’ [11] to be aired 1st February asks a pilot, who from the UK remotely flies UAV missions over Afghanistan, whether knowing he has killed people he can let it go at the end of the working day, the pilot answers:

You’ve got to. Yeah okay, it’s gonna weigh on your mind and then I’ve got a 45 minute drive home, so I just stick the radio on, listen to a podcast, whatever – just drive home and then by the time I’m home I’m kind of straight into family life.

The proposed use of adapted versions of this controversial military hardware by government agencies and the police to monitor their own citizens clearly goes further to blur the distinction between the military and civilian law enforcement; the police are being equipped as a de facto army against the people. It is an obscene abuse of power – the replacement of policing by consent with policing by remote control. In his 1929 book ‘The New Despotism’ then Lord Chief Justice of England, Lord Hewart coined the phrase “Administrative Lawlessness” to describe a worrying trend in English politics at that time – the exercise of arbitrary power, where decisions are made in secret, not based on evidence and without proper debate. The secret development of CCTV UAVs or drones by bodies such as those in the Home Office backed South Coast partnership represents yet another step towards completing the forewarned Administrative Lawlessness now evident the world over as civil liberties are squandered.

It is not just in the UK that the use of surveillance drones has been secretly developed. In the United States in 2007, Houston police set up a UAV test site consisting of black trucks, satellite dishes and whirling radar in a remote area approximately 45 miles west of Houston [12]. A local television crew was alerted to the test and Executive Assistant Police Chief Martha Montalvo was forced to go public. Whilst the UAV tested in this case was a smaller variety than those being developed by BAE, the KPRC Local 2 website article [13] reveals that the stated aims of proponents are pretty much the same:

Montalvo told reporters the unmanned aircraft would be used for “mobility” or traffic issues, evacuations during storms, homeland security, search and rescue, and also “tactical.” She admitted that could include covert police actions and she said she was not ruling out someday using the drones for writing traffic tickets.

Modern cities like war zones

Professor Stephen Graham of Durham University [14] (“Cities and the ‘war on terror'”, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 2006) describes how the US administration has securitized the everyday urban spaces where “all-pervasive discourses of ‘homeland security,’ emphasizing endless threats from an almost infinite range of people, places and technologies, are being used to justify a massive process of state building”.

This process involves deepening state surveillance, repression and violence against those seen to harbour ‘terrorist threats’, combined with radically increased efforts to ensure the effective filtering power of starkly reinscribed national, infrastructural and urban borders. After decades where the business press and politicians endlessly celebrated the supposed collapse of boundaries (at least for mobile capital) through neoliberal globalization, ‘in both political debates and policy practice, borders are very much back in style’.

Graham goes on to explore the similarities of measures adopted in ‘homeland’ and ‘target’ cities:

Since 2002, for the first time, fleets of apparently identical US unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have indeed patrolled both the increasingly militarized border of the Southern United States and the cities and frontier lands of the war zones of the Middle East. Identical, that is, except in one crucial respect. Tellingly, in the former case, however, worries have been expressed about the dangers of accidental crashes from unarmed drones flying over the US’s civilian population by Federal aviation safety officers.

Back in the UK the civil use of UAVs is being developed in Wales, two miles south of Aberporth at a technology park called ParcAberporth. ParcAberporth was developed by the Welsh Assembly Government on the site of a former RAF airfield. The Welsh Assembly has spent over £13 million on the establishment and running of ParcAberporth [15]; last year they ran a consultation on ‘An Airspace Change to Establish Segregated Airspace for The Wales Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Environment’ [16], the consultation document says:

The Welsh Assembly Government has identified the UAS [unmanned aircraft system] sector as an area with potential for significant economic impact for West Wales. To that end ParcAberporth was developed by the Welsh Assembly Government in 2003/04 as a Centre of Excellence for leading aerospace companies involved in the research and development of UAS.

Aberporth is in Ceredigion which received European Union ‘Objective 1′ funding (awarded to those areas in the European Union whose GDP is less than 75% of the EU average). Part of this funding was used to develop ParcAbeporth on the pretence that it had the potential to create over 200 jobs near Cardigan. A 2006 EU Ceridigion press release (‘Objective 1 helps boost Ceredigion with Unmanned Flying Vehicles’) [17] states:

Andrew Davies, Minister for Economic Development and Transport described ParcAberporth as a unique centre within the UK, which had tremendous potential, “Development of ParcAberporth means we have an opportunity to play a lead role in the rapidly growing UAV sector and are working to ensure it becomes a significant centre in the UK for the research and development of new technologies and new civil applications.”

According to the 2009/2010 UAS Yearbook [18] a partnership has been set up with the Ministry of Defence (MOD) Aberporth, West Wales Airport and the West Wales UAS centre to create the Wales UAS Environment and “West Wales Airport is the only site in the UK able to undertake routine operations of civil and military UAS operations and the only UK airport to have a UAS Operations Manual accepted by a civil regulatory authority”.

Thankfully there is some opposition the the UAV centre in Wales. Bro Emlyn – for Peace and Justice (BEPJ) [19], a group who campaign on peace and justice issues in the Newcastle Emlyn area of West Wales, are calling for action against drone testing at ParcAberporth. Amongst BEPJ’s concerns are:

  • 50,000 people live under the new 650 sq mile UAV testing zone. Two drones have crashed in the first months of flying out of Parc Aberporth so there are great concerns about safety.
  • Operators will have to abide by a “code of practice” on privacy, but the MOD will be the main user and they are unlikely to be accountable in the same way.
  • Military drones attacks are calculated to kill 50 civilians for every combatant killed
  • The expected hundreds of jobs have not materialised. Only 18 people are currently employed at Parc Aberporth

There has also been some opposition to the use of UAVs within the UK police force itself. A report, in the Police Aviation News (PAN) journal [20], of the 2007 event at which the South Coast Partnership project was launched says:

Much of the good humoured banter generated in and outside the hall related to the inexorable approach of the UAV. Everyone was agreed that, industry aside, this spectre is still sufficiently distant to be largely discounted but here as everywhere it intruded into most conversations and finally became the object of humour. As is becoming increasingly clear in the day to day information gathering for PAN the subject simply will not just go away. There was evident hostility from the pilots to the newcomer – although most were agreed that the chances of such craft actually replacing air support as we know it were very slender. As has been proven recently the biggest danger appears to lie in potential air unit operators ‘making do’ with unmanned vehicles in the mistaken belief that a UAV can replace manned craft. They are aircraft but in reality those seeking to operate them are not of the current aviation fraternity. [...] There were certainly few real UAV fans in the Congress Centre.

Civilian UAVs – a multi-billion pound industry

A 2005 Welsh Assembly press release stated that: “The UAV sector is worth around £1 billion a year worldwide but this is expected to increase significantly with the predicted growth of civil applications” [21]. A more recent article on the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) website [22] predicts that Civilian UAV use is set to rise and reports that the “Virginia-based Teal Group estimates will be worth $62bn over the next decade”. The UK group CorporateWatch, in an article about ParcAberporth [23], outline the companies driving the UAV agenda:

The rapid expansion of drone technologies is being pushed for by a veritable super consortium of arms companies, UK government agencies and universities, under the name Astraea (Autonomous Systems Technology Related Airborne Evaluation & Assessment). These include: BAE Systems, Thales, Rolls Royce, Agent Oriented Software and QinetiQ; the South West of England Regional Development Agency, South East Economic Development Agency, Scottish Enterprise and the North West Regional Development Agency; and the universities of Loughborough, Sheffield, Lancaster and Aberystwyth, among others. State involvement in Astraea is ‘led’ by the Welsh Assembly and, as such, Astraea receives half its funding from the public sector, constituting £16million in total.

Further evidence of the financial rewards expected by members of the UAV industry is the scale of events, conferences and exhibitions staged around the world. Events in the UK such as the Bristol International Remotely Piloted Vehicle (RPV) Conference [24] and the ParcAberporth Unmanned Systems demonstration and exhibition [25]; and in the United States – the Kansas UAV Symposium [26] and ‘AUVSI’s Unmanned Systems North America’ [27] described as “the World’s Largest Unmanned System Conference and Exhibition”, which this year will take place in Denver, Colorado.

Despite the enormous profits the UAV corporations can generate from their hugely expensive toys these events it seems think nothing of taking tax payers money. The 2007 ParcAberporth Unmanned Systems demonstration and exhibition event received £181,145 from the Welsh Assembly government for “Showplace Hospitality Suites”, “consultancy service” and “provision of services for the direction and management of the flying/ground demonstrations and associated rehearsals” [28].

The Olympics as pretext for a surveillance arms race

In the UK one of the pretexts being used for surveillance drones is the 2012 Olympics, indeed the South Coast Partnership intends to begin using the drones in time for the games. The CCTV industry as a whole is rubbing its hands with glee at the expected growth of the UK CCTV, particularly in London. And of course the surveillance technologies are likely to stay after the Olympics unless robustly contested. In a June 2008 Guardian podcast [29], author Naomi Klein described the “kind of surveillance arms race going on” from one Olympic games to the next. In Athens $1.25m was spent, and in China somewhere in the realm of $12.5m, Klein warned:

What Londoners need to be aware of is the pressure that’s being exerted behind the scenes by companies which have gotten a taste of the super profits in China, in the name of Olympic security, and they’re going to be selling the same model now to any city that hosts the games.

The Panopticon

The Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) proposed a model prison called the Panopticon (“all-seeing”) [30] which functioned as a round-the-clock surveillance machine. French philosopher Michel Foucault describes the implications of the Panopticon: “So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action”. Drones that fly at 20,000 feet, that cannot be seen or heard from the ground would constitute another brick in the Panopticon prison that is being steadily built around us – unless we speak out and start taking the bricks down.

The problems of our society require more human interaction, not less. Silent, invisible CCTV drones should remain the stuff of science fiction novels – they have no place in a free country. Better community reduces crime, technology does not.

[The 23rd January Guardian drone article was based on documents obtained from Kent Police under the Freedom of Information Act. A request for the documents was sent to Kent Police on 27th January via the WhatDoTheyKnow website [31] but Kent Police have not yet made the information available to the wider public.]

Endnotes:

For more info see www.no-cctv.org.uk

, , ,

21