Police have used unmanned drones to monitor political protests, including those held by the non-violent Black Lives Matter movement, research shows.
Police also used drones in 2020 at animal rights protests, Extinction Rebellion and anti-HS2 demonstrations, and in one instance, an extreme-right protest.
Campaigners say the police’s expanded use of drones is happening with the unclear rules and next to no debate. Police say that is not the case.
The campaign group Drone watch used freedom of information requests to ask police forces to detail their use of drones at protests from January to October 2020.
The Surrey, Cleveland, Staffordshire, Gloucestershire and West Midlands forces said they had used drones at BLM protests. Cleveland at three BLM events, Gloucestershire at two BLM protests and one lockdown protest, and West Midlands at three BLM protests.
In south-west England, the Devon and Cornwall force and Avon and Somerset police used drones at 15 events including protests and public disorder incidents. Both forces declined to say at which protests drones had been used.
Police were criticised for using drones during the first coronavirus lockdown, when they were used to monitor walkers in the Peak District in Derbyshire.
Polling for Drone watch by Yonder claims to show public concern about drone use when they fly beyond where a human can see them. Of 2,000 people questioned, 60% were worried about the effects on privacy and civil liberties, and 67% said they were concerned about the safety implications.
The National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for the police use of drones, assistant chief constable Steve Barry, said: “Police use drones at protests to help inform policing tactics to keep everyone safe. Their use is well regulated and governed by the surveillance commissioner and information commissioner guidelines.”
Chris Cole of Drone watch said: “Police are adopting this new surveillance technology with little oversight or consent from the public. There seems to be little control over how the data is being gathered or stored with alarmingly worrying replies from the police indicating they do not understand what rights the public have in regard to accessing data.”
The use of drones in the UK is set to expand, and not just by the police. companies such as Amazon also plan to use them more.
Cole said: “This is just the tip of the iceberg. Despite serious public concern, the government is planning to liberalise airspace regulations to enable a whole raft of public agencies and private companies to operate drones freely in our airspace. Before that happens, it’s vital that there is a proper public debate about the limits of drone use and comprehensive privacy controls are put in place.”
Rosalind Comyn, the policy and campaigns manager at Liberty, said drone use was part of an alleged general assault on the right to protest. “Protest is a key way we can all fight for a better society and stand up for what we believe in.
“Recent years have seen a concerted attack on the right to protest from police and government, which particularly threatens people who are already marginalised and cut off from having their voices heard.
“Increased mass surveillance, whether through drones or other developing tools like facial recognition, is designed to intimidate and control, and ultimately silence dissent.”