Police use of drones to monitor political protests revealed

Chris Cole

Freedom of Information requests submitted by UK Drone Watch have revealed that a number of British police forces have been using unmanned drones to monitor political protests, with Black Lives Matter demonstrations receiving particular attention. The revelation comes as new polling shows significant public concern about government plans to expand the use of drones within the UK by changing airspace rules to allow drones to fly ‘beyond visual line of sight’.

UK Drone Watch, a new organisation set up by campaigners concerned about the safety and privacy implications of the expansion of the use of drones within the UK, submitted Freedom of Information requests to all UK regional police forces in November 2020 as a follow-up to previous FoI survey on use of drones by the police. While a number of police forces have so far refused to answer or denied using their drones in this way, ten police forces have admitted using drones to monitor public protests between January and October 2020. All police forces refused to disclose details of the covert use of their drones.

Protests monitored ranged from a gathering of far-right groups in Nottingham to an animal rights demonstration in Salisbury, and Extinction Rebellion and HS2 protest marches in Warwickshire. However, Black Lives Matter protests appear to have received the most attention with Surrey, Cleveland, Staffordshire, Gloucestershire and West Midlands police revealing that they had used drones to monitor BLM protests during 2020. Devon and Cornwall and Avon and Somerset police reported monitoring political protests with their drones but refused to divulge specific details.

Police use of drones to monitor political protests Jan – Oct 2020

Police forceFoI ResponseProtests monitored
1.Avon and SomersetRef: 1110/2015 public order events (“which include protests, civil disorder and crowded events”).
2.ClevelandRef: 212357‐203 Black Lives Matter protests
3.Devon and CornwallRef: 4684/205 protests or political demonstration events.
4.GloucestershireRef: 2020.08702 Black Lives Matter protests
1 Lockdown demonstration
5.NottinghamshireRef: 007368/201 Far right demonstration
6.StaffordshireRef: 126401 Black Lives Matter protest
Palestine protest over 5 days at UAV engines
7.SurreyRef 4273/202 Black Lives Matter protests
8.WarwickshireRef: 525-20202 HS2/Extinction Rebellion marches
9.West MidlandsRef: 1006A/203 Black Lives Matter protests
1 Football/anti-racism protest
10.WiltshireRef: 2020/794Animal Rights protest

Campaigner Jonathan Cole who undertook the FoI survey said:

“It’s extremely worrying that a number of police forces feel that it is now legitimate to use drones to monitor and film perfectly legal public protests. But what is more shocking is the disproportionate use of this technology against Black Lives Matters protestors.” 

The FoI requests also sought details of whether forces had a specific policy on the use of drones to monitor political protest events and what procedures were in place for the public to access data/images captured by police drones. The vast majority of forces said they did not have a specific policy relating to the use of drones at protests but some pointed to the ‘overarching’ police drones policy. Only North Yorkshire Police has an online and accessible policy regarding their use of drones. In relation to members of the public being able to check whether their image had been captured while taking part in a political protest, some forces stated that a subject access request would be the appropriate process, while others said it was not possible for members of the public to have access to such details.

Following the outcry against police use of drones to shame walkers in the Peak District in March 2020, and recent polling showing public privacy fears over the expansion of the use of drones, the revelations of police use of drones to monitor and film political protests are likely to fuel further public concern say UK Drone Watch.

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