Slew in the direction of Dalston

British police forces are making plans to deploy surveillance drones in UK airspace, the Guardian reports. Kent Police is leading the project; four other police forces have signed up. The drones look to be (relatively) cheap and simple machines that are battlespace tested: a manufacturer – BAE Systems – has evaluated its candidate drone (HERTI) in Afghanistan. The Guardian says that only CAA licensing now stands in the way of domestic deployment.

A news piece like this has an aspect of dark comedy. Many people have worried for a while that UK policing has become militarised; here’s a story that’s confirmatory to an absurd degree. What’s next? Precision targetting of Harehills with JDAMs? Don’t be ridiculous …

You’d think there might be some legitimate role for surveillance drones in UK policing. After all, helicopter surveillance and CCTV are both legitimate, and drones constitute the intersection of those methods. Nonetheless, intuition tells you that something is horribly wrong here. But what is it that’s wrong?

The Guardian’s story – and they may be getting over-excited, but I tend to think not – says that Kent Police started out by claiming that the drones were to be used to monitor shipping and illegal immigrants. You might think that at least the shipping part of that would be OK; seas and shipping being what they are. But it turns out that these claims were just spin on the part of Kent Police; they always had a wider role in mind. Documents disclosed to the Guardian under the Freedom of Information Act suggest Kent Police would also like to use drones to monitor “antisocial driving” and “event security”, and also to conduct “covert urban surveillance”. Of course, this last could cover just about anything. And this, I think, points to the problem; it’s a problem of proportionality. Someone, somewhere, has lost touch with the relative seriousness of things. Not only that, they’ve lost touch with what constitutes a safe environment for policing. Is the view from their doorstep just a blur of hurt and evil doing, or what? It doesn’t take much discrimination to be able to tell that “theft from cash machines” won’t justify the same sort of efforts at risk reduction as attempting to interdict bomb plotters in a ‘failed state’. In certain parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan, it’s almost impossible for someone in uniform to move around safely. Britain is not like that at all, and you’re only going to infuriate and alienate British people by seriously suggesting that it is. So what do Kent Police and the other collaborating police forces think they’re doing making plans to hide in a bunker and send out Predators?

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About Charlie Whitaker

Charlie is an architect living and working in London. Increasingly, he is also a philosophy graduate of Birkbeck, University of London. When he is not doing his real work, he puzzles needlessly over news stories and current events.

3 thoughts on “Slew in the direction of Dalston

  1. Charlie: Sixty years ago – yes, that long ago – I was warned by a policeman (he was the older brother of a friend of mine) that “we’ll catch you some day”. When I enquired further, he was quite open: “You’re all criminals, or soon-to-be criminals: it’s just that we don’t have anything on you – yet”.

    I no longer live in the UK, but it seems little has changed.

  2. As in the USA, rather than introduce real-time overt documentation of the community, British authorities prefer a covert system. Overt documentation is accomplished by citizen registration offices, in Germany known as the Einwohnermeldeamt. People living in Germany are required to register with the Einwohnermeldeamt by giving their address, birthdate, and family status. The USA doesn’t have offices like these. Instead they’re building a wall along the border with Mexico. The UK doesn’t have them either I understand.

    There is potential for abuse of the information collected by Citizen Registration Offices, but the real benefits include being able to pinpoint the location for new schools, sewers, hospitals, parks, transportation systems,etc. You know, the kind of information that municipal government needs to function properly. They are also expensive I suppose, but how expensive is a fleet of drones hovering above England? And which system is a greater risk to the body politic? At least we know that there’s overt documentation in Germany and that it can be abused. The covert system of drones would be controlled by agents who though public servants remain unaccountable until scandal exposes their work. Of course Anglo-Saxons on both sides of the Atlantic are too proudly individualistic aka libertarian to allow the goverment to overtly collect information about them. But they’re willing to let the security apparatus do it secretly.

  3. I like bmeisen’s comment. That’s my kind of cynicism.

    On the other hand, a bit of hysteria about things like this does no harm either. We need police, but we should give them a good kicking from time to time pour encourager les autres.

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