The Devon and Cornwall police force, tasked with the patrol of the largest geographical area in England, are pioneering perpetual drone surveillance by establishing an unprecedented 24-hour drone surveillance of its patrol area set to begin this summer.
The police drones, also identified as “unmanned aerial systems,” have undergone smaller tests last year. Multiple reports state that the drones will mostly be used for locating crime suspects and missing persons as well as surveillance of crime scenes.
Steve Barry, the UK’s National Police Chiefs’ Council spokesman regarding police drones, touted the cost savings of choosing these devices rather than deploying police helicopters; according to a report from The Daily Mail, Barry predicts “forces across Britain would soon be using them as they are cheaper than helicopters and can perform some duties of bobbies on the beat.” The does not specify how deeply these police drones will be able to inspect individuals, including in regards to audio capacity.
The Mail noted that Barry has pondered the possibility of drones replacing some officers and said “there may be an opportunity at some point in the future to rationalise what we need our cops to do because we find drones can do it more effectively and more cost-efficiently.” However, Barry did not indicate that he approves of a reduced police force in favor of the devices, and other officers and experts were quoted in the report as viewing drones as a supplement for police rather than their replacement.
Drones indeed have a unique ability to scope areas that officers cannot approach on foot. A report published by the Cato Institute acknowledged that drones “allow police to investigate dangerous situations such as bomb threats and toxic spills.” These devices can seen as an advantage for civilians in peril, but they also serve as a troubling mechanism of undermining the personal privacy of a large population.
The Daily Mail highlighted how drones are useful for aerial footage of crime scenes, but also pointed to their use in monitoring “protests, sieges and football matches,” and noted that they “have been tested for use in terror attacks and to track anti-social behavior.”
The use of drones as a law enforcement tool has been taking place for years. Since the beginning, civil liberties advocates have warned of the consequences that heightened, innovative surveillance can unleash on the populace. Drones “deployed without proper regulation, drones equipped with facial recognition software, infrared technology, and speakers capable of monitoring personal conversations would cause unprecedented invasions of our privacy rights.
Interconnected drones could enable mass tracking of vehicles and people in wide areas. Tiny drones could go completely unnoticed while peering into the window of a home or place of worship,” the ACLU advises. While the 24-hour drone surveillance initiative is based in one large area of England and has yet to be introduced publicly in the United States, Cato cautions that the courts have yet to tackle drones and their capability to obstruct our Fourth Amendment.
The Devon and Cornwall police are currently recruiting a “drone manager” to oversee this new program. The law enforcement agency is also expressing confidence that this program will motivate police across the country to follow their lead. “‘I would not be at all surprised if other forces follow in due course – the question is not whether they will, it’s when,” Barry said.