Oversight, accountability and drones: the case of Northern Ireland

On 11 April 2013, the Policing Board of Northern Ireland endorsed a proposal put forward by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) to purchase ‘three types of Unmanned Aerial Systems’, alleged to have a combined cost of £1 million; though during a subsequent debate in the Northern Ireland Assembly, it emerged that a total of nine drones were to be purchased by the PSNI.

The impetus of this purchase is the G8 summit, to be held near Enniskillen in June 2013, and concerns, expressed by the PSNI and others, at the size of the event, the potential for violent protests combined with the ongoing security threat posed by dissident republicans. So extensive is this policing operation that 3,000 police officers from Britain will also be drafted in to Northern Ireland, though under the command and oversight of the PSNI, together with collaboration from the Irish Gardai.

The Policing Board indicated that as well as playing a role in the policing operation at G8, drones will also be used in ‘searches for suspects and missing persons, providing support [for] uniform police officers attending calls, events management and public order situations’.  In this respect, security along the extensive border with the Republic, the location of fuel smuggling and human trafficking, will be improved as will, one imagines, the safety of individual officers in riots.

The Policing Board had requested clarification around the scrutiny and regulation of drone use by the PSNI, with a particular reference to the retention and disposal of images, and the need to comply with Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (2000) and the Civil Aviation Authority’s regulations.  Central to the case put forward by the PSNI on the long-term policing benefits was the significant cost savings which could be achieved and the fact they could be deployed in adverse weather conditions. Drones have been approved for an initial period of one year and a full review of this use of drones will be undertaken by the Oversight Commissioner at the end of this period.

The deployment of this technology in Northern Ireland, and the level of transparency surrounding it, is significant.  Following on from the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement, the Report of the Independent Commission on Policing, also known as Patten Commission, made 175 recommendations focused on developing a human rights approach to policing.  While also concerned with building a more representative institution, central to the recommendations, was an emphasis on transparency and accountability and led to the creation of the Northern Ireland Policing Board.  While far from perfect, the result is that the PSNI is forced to undertake a more open approach to policing, including on areas such the deployment of new technologies.  For example, the use of CS spray has been the subject of a number of policy and equality consultations, and each incident of its deployment was subjected to review by the Police Ombudsman, another oversight mechanism which deals with complaints against the police. Correspondence with the Police Ombudsman’s office on the deployment of drones has revealed that this office has a degree of oversight, for example, complaints could be made alleging that a police officer/s has used this technology improperly; the decision on the use of drones however is one for the PSNI.

However, while the arguments around costs are undoubtedly correct; the broader potential consequences of drone use by the PSNI need to be considered.  When the idea was first mooted in 2011, the debate spilt along the usual political lines. The DUP welcomed plans for the use of mini-drones by the PSNI, while Sinn Fein cautioned on over-relying on technology at the expense of community policing.  The relationship between intelligence gathering, and the use of this information, is controversial in Northern Ireland; collusion between the security services and paramilitaries has left its mark.  A 2012 report by the Committee on the Administration of Justice, focused on the role of MI5 in covert policing, highlights concerns around the reduced accountability and oversight now applicable to one of the most sensitive aspects of policing in Northern Ireland.  It is important that the use of drones don’t fall into the same ‘accountability gap’.

Questions have been asked in the House, by MPs from Northern Ireland, about the regulation of civil drone use.  For example, Jim Shannon (DUP) put a question to the Secretary of State for Transport, querying his Department’s policy on the use of drones for surveillance.  The response was:

The Government recognises the potential of unmanned aircraft systems… in a variety of civil applications, particularly in crisis management situations. …we recognise there are some concerns from the general public about the use of RPAS in urban areas, particularly in relation to privacy and data protection. Operators are required to take into consideration European and national legislation, such as the Data Protection Act and Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, when conducting operations and ensure that data is managed sensitively and securely in accordance with these rules. We do not believe that any additional regulatory changes are needed to ensure adequate privacy and data protection.

While the debate as to whether there needs to be additional regulation continues, it is clear that there is scope for greater public engagement and confidence-building by government and individual police forces.

The benefit of the oversight regime of Northern Ireland’s Police Service is that there is some level of transparency around the acquisition of drones.  Much could be learnt from this model by British police forces.  Our freedom of information requests on the purchase and deployment of drones by these police forces has had a relatively lukewarm response, with a heavy reliance on withholding information on the grounds of national security.  If a police service, facing serious and ongoing security threats, such as the PSNI, is able to publicly announce the details of their engagement with drone technology, there seems little reason why police services in Britain cannot take the same approach.

One thought on “Oversight, accountability and drones: the case of Northern Ireland

  1. Pingback: OPAQUE AND DANGEROUSLY UNACCOUNTABLE : THE VERDICT ON MI5 FIVE YEARS ON !!! | seachranaidhe1

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