On the horizon: drone spies coming to UK skies

SkyGuardian flight trials over the UK in September 2021

In the last few months Drone Wars and UK Drone Watch have organised protests outside RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire and RAF Lossiemouth in North East Scotland. We were protesting the decision to allow US arms manufacturer General Atomics to conduct experimental flights of their SkyGuardian drone in UK airspace. SkyGuardian is a prototype of the UK’s new armed drone, named Protector, which will replace the UK’s current Reaper armed drone fleet in 2024. As we have shown, the prospect of such large drones regularly flying in UK airspace raises significant safety and accountability concerns.

In response to our actions, the Secretary of State for Defence, Ben Wallace, and the Chief of the Air Staff, Sir Mike Wigston, went out of their way to insist that the presence of SkyGuardian in the UK was innocuous. The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), which manages British airspace, described SkyGuardian as a “civilian aircraft” and approved it to fly in the UK. However, dig a little deeper and the dangers posed by these flights become clear. Drones, which can provide a constant presence and are relatively economical to fly, are likely to be increasingly used for domestic surveillance by state and private operators. Rising drone surveillance poses threats to human rights, privacy and data protection. Strong regulation of such operations is therefore essential to overcome secrecy and prevent abuses of power. 

Protector: advancing the surveillance state?

In answer to a parliamentary question tabled by SNP MP Stewart McDonald last July, defence minister James Heappey stated that “Protector will not conduct any domestic surveillance operations in the UK”. This statement is questionable for several reasons. Firstly, when Protector enters service in 2024 it will be based at RAF Waddington. This airbase is a key “hub” for the British military’s Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance operations.

Protector is different from the UK’s previous armed drones as it was designed to be able to fly in the UK and conduct domestic operations. The challenge the UK, and other governments, have faced with the ambition of using drones domestically is how to integrate them safely into civil airspace. Such aircraft must currently fly in segregated airspace or gain special permission to fly beyond the visual line of sight (BVLOS) of their operators. This greatly limits the type and frequency of operations drones can engage in. The Ministry of Defence’s (MOD) intention with the SkyGuardian test flights was therefore to open UK skies up to large drones, like Protector, so they can fly freely alongside civil aircraft.

On 23rd September, SkyGuardian flew from RAF Lossiemouth to conduct test flights over the English Channel.

Secondly, data from the SkyGuardian flights shows that it flew down the length of the UK to conduct tests over the English Channel. This strongly suggests that Protector may be used to monitor migrants and refugees travelling to the UK from Europe. Official documents we acquired via Freedom of Information (FOI) requests show that the MOD wanted SkyGuardian flights to show off the aircraft’s capabilities to “other Government Departments” including the UK’s Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) and Border Force.

The Home Office has also recently acquired drones and conducted drone tests and patrols over the English Channel. In 2020, Watchkeeper—a British Army drone—was used by the Border Force to monitor migrant boats crossing from France to the UK. In addition, Eleanor Langford of Politics Home reported last year that the National Police Air Service and MCA organised tests of Israeli military-grade drones, whilst the Home Office may use similar drones for tasks including “protest surveillance, pursuing suspects and missing person searches.” It is therefore possible that General Atomics partly wanted to conduct the SkyGuardian tests to ward off competition from other companies that could provide drones of use to civil authorities.

Thirdly, military piloted aircraft have previously been used by intelligence agencies to conduct surveillance in the UK. Richard Norton Taylor, for example, revealed in 2007 that “the intelligence agencies are using military aircraft equipped with sophisticated surveillance equipment to eavesdrop on and monitor the movements of suspected terrorists.” In addition, earlier this year, Dan Sabbagh found that MI5 was working with Imperial College London on drone technology which may be used in support of surveillance operations.

At present, we can only speculate on what surveillance role Protector might have in the UK. What we are certain of is that, without transparency from the Government, the public will continue to be in the dark and there will be a notable absence of accountability.

The threat posed by drone spies

Greater use of drones by the state (or private operators) clearly needs to be carefully scrutinised. Key questions concerning drone surveillance include: Which government agencies are using drones and for what purpose? How will data gathered by drones be used and who will it be shared with? What measures are needed, both to control the use of drones given their advancing capabilities, and prevent abuses of power?

Some police forces and private companies are already flying drones beyond visual line of sight within the UK.

Of particular importance is the possibility that British intelligence agencies are using, or will use, drones to spy on people in the UK. Former Policing Minister Damian Green stated in 2013 that: “covert use [of drones] by a public authority likely to obtain private information…would be subject to authorisation under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act [RIPA] 2000.” However, lawyers, campaigners and parliamentarians, including the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Drones, which represents a group of MPs and Peers, have criticised RIPA for its lack of safeguards concerning surveillance.

For example, in 2014 the Drones APPG produced a series of submissions to UK Government and European Commission inquiries on drone surveillance. In one submission, the APPG argued that “section 42(3) RIPA would in theory enable GCHQ and other intelligence services to carry out intrusive surveillance by drone if authorised by the Secretary of State.” Another submission observed that where drones are used “by or on behalf of security services” there would be “very little regulation of retention and use of surveillance data. That is very different to the position in respect of data obtained via interception of communications, which is subject to a separate legislative framework.”

The APPG also asked Jemima Stratford QC to provide expert evidence on the legality of drone surveillance by the UK Government. Stratford’s finding, submitted to the Home Office, was that it is “probably unlawful” for security services to “retain or use surveillance data” captured by drones under current laws. Such findings presumably informed the Drones APPG’s striking conclusion that:

consideration should be given to banning commercial intelligence gathering missions, and the need for warrants (or other independent authorisation) for use of drones for surveillance purposes by or on behalf of government bodies. Additional restrictions and requirements on surveillance drones may ease the path for mainstream commercial use.

In August 2018, following a Home Office consultation, revised Codes of Practice for Covert Surveillance and Property Interference and Covert Human Intelligence Sources were published. The former contains a section providing guidance on the use of Aerial Surveillance Devices, including drones. This updated Code appears to address, or at least recognise, some of the concerns raised by the Drones APPG highlighted above. It would be very valuable if a similar expert legal review were conducted to assess whether the new Code really does protect data and privacy rights from drone surveillance, and to ascertain if there are ways in which RIPA could be clarified and strengthened.

Modern technology must serve democracy

 Such protections are essential because the British security state has repeatedly shown contempt for people’s privacy, the law, and human rights—both at home and abroad. For example, in 2015 the Investigatory Powers Tribunal ruled that GCHQ unlawfully accessed millions of British people’s data that had been collected by the US National Security Agency. Moreover, UK intelligence and military assets are regularly used by the US, including for potentially unlawful drone strikes.

Our own research has found that several UK police forces use drones to monitor public events and protests. One of the main issues with the growing use of surveillance technology in policing is that the public has virtually no knowledge of what this data is used for, how it is stored, and how this impacts on their right to privacy. Of 2,000 British people questioned in a recent poll by UK Drone Watch, 60% were worried about the effects of expanding drone use on their privacy and civil liberties. Moreover, the fact that advances in surveillance technology come at a time when the UK Government is attacking the freedom to protest is deeply troubling.

In addition to Government agencies, there are now hundreds of companies using drones to provide a range of services—including data capture and surveillance. For example, in response to a recent FOI request we submitted, the CAA provided data on 17 companies and Government bodies who have been given permission to conduct BVLOS drone flights in the UK. Several of these either undertake projects with military uses or are defence groups themselves, such as DSTL and Qinetiq. If BVLOS drone flights become commonplace, a greater variety and frequency of domestic surveillance operations will likely ensue. This, combined with drones using ever more powerful cameras and sensors, poses a clear threat to privacy and data protection.

 The dangers involved in drone surveillance by the state and private operators make it an area requiring strong oversight and democratic control. A range of measures have been proposed by experts and campaigners to protect people’s rights from drone surveillance—these should be closely studied by governments and parliamentarians. Ultimately, the future of our democracy depends on there being much greater public involvement in resolving the question of how drones—and other increasingly powerful technologies—can be used responsibly, legally, and for the common good.

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