Big Brother Britain: Surveillance drones ‘a huge potential for abuse’

Jamie Doward, The Observer |

Drones will be commonplace in the skies above the UK within a decade, according to a European commission document suggesting that hundreds of firms will develop new uses for them.

But the claims have prompted concerns from civil liberties groups, who fear that the unmanned aircraft will result in more forms of surveillance. Some 95% of drones in operation are used by the military, but the document notes they now also have “great potential for civil applications”.

The commission’s working paper, Towards a European Strategy for the Development of Civil Applications of Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems, claims there are some 400 civilian drone applications in development across the EU. This number is expected to rise in the next decade.

It is estimated that 35,000 drones will be produced worldwide in the next 10 years. Currently the US and Israel produce two-thirds of drones, while Europe produces fewer than 10%.

So far, non-military drone use is rare. Merseyside police bought a £13,000 drone that crashed into the Mersey last year. Kent police are also reportedly working on a £3m project to use unmanned aircraft to patrol the coast.

Possible uses of civilian drones cited in the commission document include using them for “risky flights into ash clouds or in proximity of nuclear or chemical plants after major incidents”. It also suggests drones could be used in crisis management, law enforcement, border control and firefighting.

In commerce hundreds of uses have been identified “in precision agriculture and fisheries, power/gas line monitoring, infrastructure inspection, communications and broadcasting, wireless communication relay and satellite augmentation systems, natural resources monitoring, media/entertainment, digital mapping, land and wildlife management, air quality management”. The paper says knowledge of drones’ abilities “will quickly spread among potential users, creating new markets of aerial services in the same way that the iPad created an entirely new and unpredicted market for mobile data services”.

But campaigners warned that the new generation of drones could have profound consequences for civil liberties. “With the use of drones in European airspace spiralling, we urgently need greater clarity and transparency about when and how these tools are deployed,” said Eric King of Privacy International.

“Not too long ago, this was the stuff of science fiction, but flying robotic devices equipped with facial recognition technology and mobile phone interception kit are increasingly commonplace.

“However, the secretive way in which surveillance drones have been put into operation, and the failure of the police to recognise and address the human rights issues involved, has created a huge potential for abuse.”

The rush to develop the technology has also brought safety concerns. A report by the US government accountability office warns that Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) lack the technological and operational standards “needed to guide safe and consistent performance of UAS”.

The US government accountability office also acknowledged that there were privacy concerns including “the potential for increased amounts of government surveillance using technologies placed on UAS, the collection and use of such data, and potential violations of constitutional Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizures”.The EC document urges member states to develop a common, comprehensive plan, similar to the regulatory strategy being rolled out in the US, to ensure drones become a common part of air traffic by 2016.

“The UK doesn’t have a proper road map [for the roll out of drones]; its existing roadmap was written in 2005 and it’s too old,” said Mahendran Arjunraja, senior research analyst at Frost & Sullivan, a global market consultancy. “Safety issues are paramount. We will soon have civilian UAVs sharing airspace with airplanes,” Arjunraja said. “There is a need to develop sense-and-avoid technology so the UAS don’t crash into aeroplanes. We should see this technology being rolled out within the next 10 years.”