Eroding the Right to Protest: Drone Surveillance and Policing in the UK

Holly Barrow

In recent years, activists and campaigners have noted a concerted effort by the UK Government to dilute the right to protest. Liberty – the UK’s largest civil liberties organisation – has worked tirelessly to combat this, with some of its campaigns particularly focusing on the Government’s use of technological surveillance to silence dissent. 

The rise in technological surveillance in UK policing is no minor concern. Last February, UK police departments admitted to using drones to monitor public protests across the country. From Black Lives Matter protests in June 2020 to climate crisis demonstrations, several police forces admitted that they had used drones to surveil activity following an FoI (Freedom of Information) request from UK Drone Watch. A number of other forces refused to answer, and all of those asked refused to detail their covert use of drones. 

Why is technological surveillance by the police a concern?

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 the 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. This high level of concern is not without cause. 

Previous studies and research indicates that the privacy implications of surveillance technology are murky to say the least. A 2017 Statewatch report looked at how police surveillance at political meetings, demonstrations and protests is physically and psychologically intrusive and reduces autonomy. Those in favour of police surveillance often argue that privacy rights cannot be applied to public spaces and therefore are not applicable to protests, since anyone can observe this activity. Yet Statewatch argued that privacy is integral to protest mobilisations and is often relied upon so that those protesting do not fear unwelcome consequences. In surveilling legal protests, privacy is diminished and, as a result, this influences whether an individual feels they can or cannot participate in protest. 

What’s more, Statewatch points out that there is a clear difference between protests being observed by other members of the public and being policed through surveillance. There is an obvious shift in power dynamics here which influences the loss of autonomy. Those who would perhaps wish to take part in protest may be discouraged knowing that their actions are being monitored by police, with no clarity regarding both what this data may be used for and whether it could be used to criminalise them, despite the protest itself being lawful. 

How police surveillance technologies disproportionately effect marginalised groups

Those who are already marginalised by the state are suffering further discrimination as a result of these new technologies and tools. When it became clear that police departments across the US were using drone surveillance to monitor Black Lives Matter protests following the murder of George Floyd, activists highlighted how this form of surveillance serves to uphold the very systemic racism such protests sought to fight against. 

Discrimination in policing is no new phenomenon – one only has to consider the UK police’s disproportionate use of stop and search powers against people of colour and the longstanding issue of racial profiling. Regrettably, surveillance technologies are not immune from this injustice. Facial recognition technology – which could be built into police drones in future – has repeatedly been found to exacerbate racial bias, with research carried out in 2018 finding that some facial analysis algorithms misclassified Black women nearly 35 percent of the time, while typically working best on middle-aged white men’s faces. 

The increasing use of unmanned aircraft in policing therefore does not bode well for minorities who are already overwhelmingly targeted. 

Surveillance as a means of intimidation

Throughout the pandemic, we have seen the UK government use Covid-19 regulations to restrict protest, with this coming to a head in its now delayed Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which civil liberties campaigners have described as an assault on the right to protest. It is clear that the growing use of technological surveillance to monitor protests in recent years is just one manifestation of the government’s attempts to erode this right. 

Rosalind Comyn, the policy and campaigns manager at Liberty, has stated that, “Increased mass surveillance, whether through drones or other developing tools like facial recognition, is designed to intimidate and control, and ultimately silence dissent.” 

This sentiment is echoed in a 2018 report by Big Brother Watch. Campaigners spoke of how “obvious or conspicuous surveillance alienates people from others […] by creating the impression that they are criminals or ‘trouble’.” This situation directly impacts upon whether individuals feel they can participate in protests, therefore infringing on the right to assemble freely. 

At a time when police powers are rapidly evolving with little parliamentary or public scrutiny, the right to protest is undoubtedly under threat. Recent events have made clear how critical this issue is – mass surveillance is only one aspect of it. 

Holly Barrow is a political correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service – a team of immigration lawyers providing assistance with UK Spouse VisasBritish citizenship and more

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