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Concerns over police use of drone fleets and how they handle gathered data

Hundreds of high-tech police drones are flying thousands of missions across the UK, but a new survey by the Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner has revealed areas of concern around data security and accountability.

Police forces in the UK routinely use drones equipped with high-definition cameras, night vision or thermal imaging capability. Some record sound as well as images.

Such drones, also known as uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAVs), are used in a range of police activities including:

  • monitoring major incidents and events
  • traffic management
  • searches for missing people
  • monitoring crime scenes
  • surveillance of suspects

Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner Professor Fraser Sampson wrote to all police forces in England and Wales asking for details about how they operate their drone fleets. Responses were received from 36 (77%) of the 47 police forces. Three of the 36 said they did not operate drones.

The survey results have prompted Professor Sampson to call urgently for police to be given guidance in key areas including the security and handling of data gathered on drone missions, and arrangements for external scrutiny of the propriety and ethics of drone deployments.

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Professor Sampson said:

“There is no doubt that drones can be a useful tool in police efforts to detect and deter crime.

“Modern drones are small, stealthy and highly capable information gathering tools that can reach places that officers and other equipment cannot.

“But like any potentially intrusive technology that can be used to watch and collect information about people, there must be consistent good practice, sensible controls, and ethical oversight in relation to how they are used.

“Our survey showed that practice among police forces in England and Wales is patchy at best, and that there is a clear need for coherent consistent guidance to be provided.

“The use of drones in policing will only expand in the years to come so now is the time to put some sensible practical guidance in place. I have made a series of recommendations. It is not rocket science, but if implemented they should at least put drone usage by police forces in England and Wales on a firmer footing.”

The report identified a number of concerns including:

  • lack of awareness of risks to the security of data recorded when drones are deployed and how, or whether, such risks are mitigated
  • lack of awareness of risks associated with applying software updates to drone systems
  • lack of a consistency of approach to how police use of drones is scrutinised to try to ensure it is appropriate and ethical, with several forces having no external scrutiny mechanism, and others using a variety of outside bodies including Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and the Office of the Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner

It includes the following recommendations:

  1. Guidance needs to be made available to forces on the procurement and deployment of surveillance technology from companies whose trading history and engagement with accountability frameworks has raised significant concern and the attendant risks.
  2. Guidance is needed on how to mitigate UAV-specific security risks, such as hacking and the use of counter-UAV technology.
  3. Chief officer should seek a single, overarching approach from their local elected policing bodies to ensure that:
    • they have agreed mechanisms for holding them to account publicly
    • the procurement and deployment of UAVs is demonstrably ethical
  4. Chief officers should consider a standardised and documented procedure for assessing sensitivity, whether that relates to a geographical site or a more transient operation involving the use of UAV. Guidance on the assessment and measurement of sensitivity is urgently needed.

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