UK’s secret national flying camera strategy

If there was any doubt left, it seems the British government has finally given up all pretense of trying to balance civil liberties and security. A plan has been revealed by The Guardian newspaper for a national strategy for surveillance by Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). And we are not just talking the micro-helicopter UAVs used by many UK police forces already, but 22m-long airships, the G22, which can stay airborne for many hours. The military drones will require special certification for civilian use.

And of course, these devices are supposed to be in place for the 2012 Olympics, but even in the documentation secured under the Freedom of Information Act (FoIA), it is made very clear that the drones will be used for a multiplicity of ‘routine’ operations, including from orders and fisheries activity to conventional policing and even “[detecting] theft from cash machines, preventing theft of tractors and monitoring antisocial driving… event security and covert urban surveillance” as well as all the kinds of activities that the already controversial Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) covers, including “fly-posting, fly-tipping, abandoned vehicles, abnormal loads, waste management”.

If this wasn’t bad enough, the whole thing has been developed in secret with the British governments favourite arms manufacturer, BAe Sytems, is projected to run as a public-private partnership due to the massive expense, and it has even been suggested that the surveillance data could be sold to private companies, according to The Guardian.

And the ‘selling’ of this to the public has already begun. Some suggestions of the use of high-flying drones had been made by Kent police, who had claimed it would be to “monitor shipping and detect immigrants crossing from France”. However, as The Guardian goes on to show this was a ruse which was part of long-term PR strategy to divert attention away from civil liberties issues. One 2007 document apparently states, “There is potential for these [maritime] uses to be projected as a ‘good news’ story to the public rather than more ‘big brother’.”

It’s really hard to say anything polite about these plans, the way they have been developed, and the complete lack of interest in or concern for the British public’s very real and growing fear of a surveillance state in the UK.

A footnote: almost as soon as this news was revealed, the British government raised the terrorist threat level to ‘severe’, without providing any indication that was any specific threat. Now, this may be entirely coincidental (and there are a couple of high-level meetings on Yemen and Afghanistan strategy in London next week), but if the threat level was much higher, the British public might suddenly be more amenable to the introduction of something to protect them from this ‘severe’ threat, like, say, flying drone cameras, don’t you think?

Author: David

I'm David Murakami Wood. I live on Wolfe Island, in Ontario, and am Canada Research Chair (Tier II) in Surveillance Studies and an Associate Professor at Queen's University, Kingston.

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