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 arms manufacturer BAE Systems, which produces a range of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for war zones, is adapting the military-style planes for a consortium of government agencies led by Kent police.
Documents from the South Coast Partnership, a Home Office-backed project in which Kent police and others are developing a national drone plan with BAE, have been obtained by the Guardian under the Freedom of Information Act.
They reveal the partnership intends to begin using the drones in time for the 2012 Olympics. They also indicate that police claims that the technology will be used for maritime surveillance fall well short of their intended use – which could span a range of police activity – and that officers have talked about selling the surveillance data to private companies. A prototype drone equipped with high-powered cameras and sensors is set to take to the skies for test flights later this year.
Concerned about the slow pace of progress of licensing issues, Kent police's assistant chief constable, Allyn Thomas, wrote to the CAA last March arguing that military drones would be useful "in the policing of major events, whether they be protests or the Olympics". He said interest in their use in the UK had "developed after the terrorist attack in Mumbai".
Stressing that he was not seeking to interfere with the regulatory process, Thomas pointed out that there was "rather more urgency in the work since Mumbai and we have a clear deadline of the 2012 Olympics".
BAE drones are programmed to take off and land on their own, stay airborne for up to 15 hours and reach heights of 20,000ft, making them invisible from the ground.
Far more sophisticated than the remote-controlled rotor-blade robots that hover 50-metres above the ground – which police already use – BAE UAVs are programmed to undertake specific operations. They can, for example, deviate from a routine flightpath after encountering suspicious activity on the ground, or undertake numerous reconnaissance tasks simultaneously.
The surveillance data is fed back to control rooms via monitoring equipment such as high-definition cameras, radar devices and infrared sensors.
Previously, Kent police has said the drone scheme was intended for use over the English Channel to monitor shipping and detect immigrants crossing from France. However, the documents suggest the maritime focus was, at least in part, a public relations strategy designed to minimise civil liberty concerns.
"There is potential for these [maritime] uses to be projected as a 'good news' story to the public rather than more 'big brother'," a minute from the one of the earliest meetings, in July 2007, states.-------------------------
I'm still calling it what it is...Big Brother.