Brian Sims

Survey pinpoints “areas of concern” around data security for drones

HUNDREDS OF high-tech police drones are now flying thousands of missions across the UK, but a new survey conducted by the Office of the Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner has revealed “areas of concern” around data security and accountability.

Police forces in the UK routinely use drones equipped with HD cameras, night vision or thermal imaging capabilities. Some of these cameras record sound as well as images. Also known as uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAVs), such drones are used in range of policing activities including the monitoring of major incidents and events, traffic management, searching for missing persons, the monitoring of crime scenes or the surveillance of suspects.

Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner Professor Fraser Sampson wrote to all police forces in England and Wales asking for details about how they operate their drone fleets. Responses were received from 36 (ie 77%) of the 47 police forces. Three of the 36 replied that they don’t operate drones.

The survey results have prompted Professor Sampson to call for the police to be given guidance “as a matter of urgency” in key areas including the security and handling of data gathered on drone missions and the arrangements for external scrutiny of the propriety and ethics of drone deployments.

Consistent good practice

Professor Sampson explained: “There is no doubt that drones can be a useful tool in the police’s efforts to detect and deter crime. Modern drones are small, stealthy and highly capable information gathering tools that can reach places officers and other equipment cannot.”

The Commissioner continued: “However, like any potentially intrusive technology that can be used to watch and collect information about individuals, there must be consistent good practice, sensible controls and ethical oversight in relation to these deployments.”

Further, Professor Sampson noted: “Our survey shows that practice among police forces in England and Wales is patchy at best, and also that there’s a clear need for coherent consistent guidance to be provided. The use of drones in policing will only expand in the years to come so now is the time to put some sensible practical guidance in place.”

The Commissioner has made a series of recommendations on this issue. “It’s not rocket science,” concluded Sampson, “but if implemented these recommendations should at least put drone usage by police forces in England and Wales on a firmer footing.”

Identified concerns

The Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner report identifies a number of concerns including:

*lack of awareness of risks to the security of data recorded when drones are deployed and how – or whether – such risks are mitigated

*lack of awareness of risks associated with applying software updates to drone systems

*lack of a consistency of approach in terms of how the police’s use of drones is scrutinised to try to ensure it;s appropriate and ethical, with several forces having no external scrutiny mechanism and others using a variety of outside bodies including the Civil Aviation Authority and the Office of the Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner

Key recommendations

Professor Sampson’s recommendations include the assertion that guidance needs to be made available to forces on the procurement and deployment of surveillance technology from companies whose trading history and engagement with accountability frameworks has raised significant concern.

In addition, guidance is needed on how to mitigate UAV-specific security risks, such as hacking and the use of counter-UAV technology.

Chief officers within the police should seek a single and overarching approach from their local elected policing bodies to ensure that they have agreed mechanisms for holding them to account publicly and also that the procurement and deployment of UAVs is demonstrably ethical.

What’s more, chief officers should consider a standardised and documented procedure for assessing sensitivity, whether that relates to a geographical site or a more transient operation involving the use of UAV.

According to the Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner, guidance on the assessment and measurement of sensitivity is urgently needed.

*Read the 2023 survey results

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