England and Wales police ask private firms for information on systems that film high-quality images at a distance
Last modified on Sat 30 Oct 2021 05.11 BST
Police in England and Wales are considering using drone-mounted cameras that could film high-quality live footage from 1,500ft (457 metres) away, raising concerns among civil liberties campaigners.
The National Police Air Service (NPAS), which provides air support to 46 police forces, has asked private companies for information about systems that offer both “airborne imaging” and “air to ground communication”.
The callout, on a government outsourcing website, states: “The imaging systems are intended for use on BVLOS (beyond visual line of sight) remotely piloted aircraft systems: ‘drones’.”
The NPAS told potential bidders that the systems should be capable of transmitting live, high-quality images even in low light, using “electro-optical” or “infra-red” systems. It said this would enable officers to pick out detail such as “facial features”, as well as clothing and vehicle registration plates, at a distance of between 500ft and 1,500ft.
The cameras should be able to operate on a drone that stays in the air for up to four hours and flies up to 50km (31 miles) from the base station from which they are controlled, the NPAS said.
Drones have been used by English and Welsh police forces, including the Met, which said in March that they had been deployed to survey crime scenes and provide live footage of operations.
But the NPAS call for information indicates plans for a national rollout using updated technology. This has raised concerns among civil liberties campaigners about issues including privacy, the role of private companies in state surveillance and the potential misuse of such technology to target legitimate protesters.
Shami Chakrabarti, the Labour peer and former head of the civil rights advocacy group Liberty, said: “The exponential growth of societal surveillance in the UK has taken place with insufficient public debate, parliamentary scrutiny and law.
“If we are to add new ‘eyes in the sky’ to a raft of land-based CCTV, algorithmic, vehicle and facial recognition technology, the government must bring forward public legislation, not change our way of life by private contracts to be operated with all the ethical probity we have seen from big tech giants.”
The campaign group Big Brother Watch expressed concerns that such technology could be misused to target people taking part in legitimate activity, such as a demonstration.
“Without clear policies in place, we’re concerned that this extreme, militaristic form of surveillance could be used in ways that breach rights and harm democracy, such as spying on peaceful protests,” said the group’s director, Silkie Carlo.
“We’ve already seen drone surveillance being used to stalk dog walkers during lockdown. Parliament should review the use of drones in policing and develop clear limitations on their use. Until then, police should immediately cease use of drones for generalised surveillance.”
The request for information was issued via the BlueLight Commercial, which manages procurement for the emergency services, with a deadline of 11 October.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “Drones are not currently provided as part of the National Police Air Service fleet but are used and funded by individual forces.
“Use of drones is an operational matter for police forces, who are subject to the robust requirements of the Air Navigation Order and General Data Protection Regulation.”
The Home Office is understood to believe that increased use of drones would allow police forces to replace helicopters, reducing noise and carbon emissions.