Crossing a Line: How the use of drones to secure borders threatens everyone’s rights

Click image to open report.

A new report published today by Drone Wars UK investigates the increasing use of military-style drones by governments to patrol state borders. The study, which examines the use of drones at the borders of the UK, EU, US, Russia, China, Australia and elsewhere, concludes that drones are contributing to the militarisation of everyday borders as part of an integrated set of security technologies – including satellites, sensors and smart walls – which pose significant challenges to personal privacy and civil liberties.

Crossing A Line: The Use of Drones to Control Borders‘ also explores the ethical questions and risks that the use of drones for border and wider public surveillance raises. The United Kingdom is now at the beginning of a journey that would see drones used regularly across the country for surveillance of the general public, and not just above the English Channel.

The report also argues that the highly publicised operation to use Watchkeeper military drones to watch for refugees crossing the Channel has little practical value but serves to help familiarise the public with the use of drones in the domestic context. Despite an intense media campaign by the government trumpeting ‘Operation Devran’ (the use of military aircraft to monitor irregular migration over the Channel) our study shows that the drone had little impact and  played a minimal role in support to the UK Border Force. The drones flew on average only once every other day in their first month of operation, with their use dropping to a total flight time of less than twenty-four hours in the second month.  Due to safety issues, they were only permitted to fly in certain areas covered by temporary airspace restrictions, and could only fly in suitable weather conditions.  Read more

Announcing a new initiative:  UK Drone Watch

Since 2010, Drone Wars UK has been shining a spotlight on the military’s use of drones and the impact on peace and security around the globe. Now, both in the US and in Europe, large military-grade drones which fly ‘beyond visual line of sight’ (BVLOS) are moving from the battlefield to the domestic front.

Here in the UK, the government is rapidly pushing ahead with plans to enable large unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to fly freely within UK airspace as part of its Airspace Modernisation Strategy.  These plans are keenly supported by the growing drone industry and the Ministry of Defence (MoD) who are taking a significant lead in this area with plans, for example, to fly the latest version of the Predator drone – which the MoD is calling ‘Protector’  – in UK airspace.  Ministers argue that the planned changes present exciting opportunities for business to create high-tech jobs and to boost the economy across the UK.  While these plans may well be a boon for some, it is vital that the negative aspects of ‘beyond visual line of sight’ (BVLOS) drone use within the UK are examined, and if such flights are to go ahead, privacy and safety protections are factored in from the start.

Elbit Systems Hermes 900 during UK trial flight for Coastguard and National Police Air Service in September 2020

It should be noted that there are no plans for primary legislation to implement these changes which would given an opportunity to subject these changes to democratic scrutiny via parliamentary debate. Instead a quango, the Airspace Change Organising Group (ACOG), has been established by the Department for Transport (DfT) and Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), to coordinate and implement government plans in this area.  We believe it is vital that this democratic deficit is publicised and challenged and the public have their say in controlling drones in UK skies.

Over the past few months, we have seen military drones deployed at the UK border to deter refugees crossing the channel, the RAF advancing plans to fly the ‘Protector’ drone in the UK,  UK coastguard and police assessing large Israeli drones for operations and other drone test programmes advanced under the COVID crisis.

Alongside our continuing focus on the military use of drones, we will now have a related programme examining the opening of UK skies to large BVLOS drones and in particular their use for security and surveillance purposes within the UK.

  • For more information see our dedicated webpage: Drone Watch UK
  • Read our first post of this initiative: Benchmarking Police Use of Drones
  • Join us soon for an online discussion on developing campaigning around opening of UK skies to BVLOS drones  (details tbc).                                      

Book review: ‘Visibility equals death’ – living under the martial gaze

In 1978 the then-US under-Secretary of Defense, William Perry, declared that the Pentagon was seeking the ability “to be able to see all high-value targets on the battlefield at any time, to be able to make a direct hit on any target we can see, and to be able to destroy any target we can hit.”  In ‘The Eye of War‘, author Antoine Bousquet argues that military technology is increasingly allowing this objective to be achieved at virtually any time and in virtually any place around the world.

‘The Eye of War’ is the story of the evolution of what Bousquet calls ‘the martial gaze’ – a gaze that threatens anything which falls under it with obliteration.  Today’s military drones are a high profile, modern manifestation, of an ability to spot and destroy a target which has been emerging since the Middle Ages, and ‘The Eye of War’ sets out in vivid terms the histories of the various technologies involved and how they have converged to create a world which, in the words of military scholar Martin Libicki “visibility equals death”.  Read more

Zephyr and the development of high-altitude military surveillance drones

The Zephyr ‘High Altitude Pseudo Satellite’ drone

The Guardian reported recently that the Pentagon’s Southern Command are testing stratospheric balloons over the US, to combat drug trafficking and support homeland security. The news has caused concern among US civil liberties advocates angry that American citizens will be being monitored in these tests. However, these balloons are just one of a new type of unmanned aerial vehicle / drone called High-Altitude Pseudo-Satellites (HAPS).  This post takes a brief look at this type of drone, which is on the horizon for a number of armed forces, and examines the UK’s development of a HAPS drone called Zephyr. Read more

Drone Wars: Surveying the home front

bftb-cover
Click to download report

Today Statewatch and Drone Wars UK are co-publishing a new report into the use of unmanned drones in UK airspace. Back from the Battlefield: Domestic Drones in the UK written by Chris Jones of Statewatch examines the current use of drones in UK airspace by public and private bodies looking in particular at their use by police and border control authorities. The report argues that it is essential for widespread debate, discussion and democratic decision-making on the issue of ‘domestic’ drones in order to establish acceptable limits on their deployment and use by public authorities, private companies and individuals.

Despite strict Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) regulations that control and limit the use of drones in UK airspace slowly but surely the number of drone operators is increasing. In late 2011 Drone Wars UK revealed that around 50 to 60 annual ‘permissions’ were granted by the CAA to private companies and public institutions to fly drones in UK airspace. Read more

Implications of US drone lobby success beginning to dawn

The repercussions of the drone lobby’s success in forcing open US domestic airspace to unmanned drones by 2015 are beginning to be felt across the US as civil liberties groups and politicians wake up to the implications for safety and privacy.

An article on the Public Intelligence website asks the basic questions “Is it even logistically possible to operate thousands of pilot-less aircraft in domestic airspace?”  The authors examine two basic practical problems with unmanned drones.  Firstly how they tend to become “zombies” by losing their wireless data-link to the remote operator – and then crashing.   And secondly how without ‘sense and avoid’ capability drones are unable to avoid other aircraft and cause mid-air collisions.   In both cases the more drones that fly – and the FAA predict up to 30,000 drones will be flying in the US by the end of the decade – the more incidents of lost data links and mid-air collisions there will be.

While safety is rightly the primary concern, civil liberties issues are also seriously affected by the new legislation. Last week the co-chairs of the Congressional Privacy Caucus, Ed Markey & Joe Barton, wrote an open letter to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) pointing out the “potential for drone technology to enable invasive and pervasive surveillance without adequate privacy protection” and requesting information as to how the FAA were to address privacy concerns.

In particular the pair want to know

  • What privacy protections and public transparency requirements has the FAA built into its current temporary licensing process for drones used in U.S. airspace?
  • Is the public notified about where and when drones are used, who operates them, what data are collected, how are the data used, how long are they retained, and who has access to that data?
  • How does the FAA plan to ensure that drone activities under the new law are transparent and individual privacy rights are protected?
  • How will the FAA determine whether an entity applying to operate a drone will properly address these privacy concerns.”

A couple of days later an ‘op-ed’ piece in the Washington Post by two Brookings analysts also raised the privacy issue:

“The current legal framework with respect to observations from above by government is not particularly protective of privacy. Two of the most relevant Supreme Court cases, California v. Ciraolo in 1986 and Florida v. Riley in 1989, addressed law enforcement’s use of manned aircraft to perform surveillance of a suspect’s property. In both cases, the court held that observations made from “public navigable airspace” in the absence of a warrant did not violate the Fourth Amendment.

These precedents suggest, in a world in which UAVs will be inexpensive and plentiful, that government operators might have broad legal latitude to use them for surveillance. Non-government operators may have even fewer constraints regarding surveillance. And today’s cameras are far more capable than those of the 1980s and can acquire stunning high-resolution imagery from hundreds of feet away — imagery that can be processed using ever more capable computers.”

However, the op-ed’s authors, John Villasenor and Ben Wittes also make the not unreasonable point that given “the challenges the agency will face in safely providing for the operation of what may soon be tens of thousands of UAVs, operated by tens of thousands of people from unconventional flight locations… to broaden its already unenviable task, to include this hotly disputed field [of privacy] that lies far from its core competency, is a recipe for bad and technologically uneven outcomes that will satisfy no one.”

The consequences of allowing unmanned drones to fly within domestic airspace both in terms of safety and privacy are beginning to be apparent to all.  That such a serious step should be taken in such a rush and under such pressure, simply  because of industry lobbying is ludicrous.   There needs to be a serious re-think, as well as an investigation into how companies with a vested industry were able to force through such a huge change with little apparent regard to the consequences.