2007 - 2021

Drone Wars

UK Police are in talks with BAE to supply Unmanned Aerial Vehicles for surveillance purposes and hope to have them operational in time for the 2012 London Olympics. Their perceived success in Afghanistan and other regional conflicts has prompted Kent Police Force to lead the initiative. In the broader context, it is the latest intrusion of surveillance, without adequate safeguards, into the private lives of citizens in Britain. Controlling democracy and limiting opportunities to large segments of the population are less talked about consequences of an advanced surveillance society.

Documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by the Guardian revealed that South Coast Partnership, a project lead by Kent Police involving five other police forces, plan to pilot the scheme before extending the military technology nationwide. The documents reveal that the previously stated aim of aiding maritime surveillance and UK Borders Police fall well short of their intended use and was at best, a public relations exercise. One of the earliest meetings in July 2007 stated, “There is potential for these [maritime] uses to be projected as a ‘good news’ story to the public rather than more ‘big brother'”. A list of potential uses has been drawn up including; “[detecting] theft from cash machines, preventing theft of tractors and monitoring antisocial driving”, while another states the aircraft could be used for road and railway monitoring, search and rescue, event security and covert urban surveillance. Bella Caledonia is waiting on more details requested under Freedom of Information – an electronic document is being prepared by Kent Police.

The UAVs or ‘drones’ are currently used for surveillance and air attacks by NATO forces in Afghanistan and by the US in the border region of Pakistan. Israel also uses them for ‘dual purposes’ in occupied Palestine. In 2004, when their use began to soar, drones clocked up a combined flying time of 71 hours. Last year, they clocked up a total of 25,391 hours and this year, the US Air Force estimates drones will have a combined flying time of 250,000 hours. The new Pakistani Authorities estimate that out of 60 drone attacks carried out by the US between January, 2006 and April, 2009, 701 people were killed, 14 of which were Al-Qa’ida leaders. The majority of the rest were innocent civilians with ‘suspected’ Taliban militants amongst the dead. These are conservative estimates in comparison to Washington based think-tank the New America Foundation. None the less, this is a hugely disproportionate loss of civilian life and a breach of international law under the Geneva Convention 1948.

Ministry of Defence figures released on February 7, 2010 under Freedom of Information (FOI) reveal RAF drones have fired 84 missiles since their deployment in June, 2008, 20 of those were in the last two months. The assassination by western forces of ‘suspected’ militants constitutes extra-judicial killings in violation of international law. The MoD claims there has been no reports of RAF drones killing innocent civilians but given the less than 10 percent success rate of US attacks, the claim is debatable.

The drones are attractive because they can stay airborne for up to 15 hours without refuelling, can be controlled from a safe distance, for example, a military base in the Nevada desert, and the Taliban have no means to fight back. Nick Turse reported Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula, Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance, the first three “Gorgon Stare pods” — new wide-area sensors that provide surveillance capabilities over large swathes of territory — will be installed on Reapers (a popular UAV model) operating in Afghanistan this spring. The new cameras will allow for 10 operators to view 10 feeds at the same time, panning, zooming and tilting the image to suit their needs. More flight time will, undoubtedly, mean more killing. In terms of Afghan and regional stability, they are completely counter-productive – the high loss of civilian life serves only the interests of the resistance by fuelling popular anger towards foreign occupation.

The Norwegian government have implemented a policy which plays a leading role opposing investment in unethical weapons. Norway receives substantial revenue from its petroleum industry. In 1990, the government established the Government Petroleum Fund, since 2006 its official name is the Norwegian Government Pension Fund-Global. The fund is currently worth over GB£200 million making it one of the world’s largest public funds. The idea is to invest “a reasonable proportion of the countries petroleum wealth to benefit future generations” which is “contingent on sustainable development in the economic, environmental and social sense”.

A 1999 news story about the fund’s investment in a Singaporean company producing anti-personnel mines provoked a serious public debate. Norway was a leading country in the Ottawa process, which resulted in banning the use, development, stockpiling, production and transfer of anti-personnel mines – but was indirectly complicit by investment. The Graver Commission was established in 2002 with the purpose of setting ethical guidelines for the Fund. The core objective was to maintain growth but not make investments which risk contributing to unethical acts, such as violations of fundamental humanitarian principles or severe environmental damage. After exhausting research and consultation, the recommendations were adopted by the Government in November 2004.

In short, negative screening took place of companies within the portfolio considered to be involved in ethically unacceptable weapons. This was done through the principle of proportionality, referring to weapons which through normal use lead to unnecessary suffering and the principle of distinction, referring to weapons which do not distinguish between military targets and civilians. The Commission had to decide which prohibited and non-prohibited weapons were unacceptable. The first exclusions were based on companies involved in the manufacture of cluster weapons (or key components). The biggest concern was mine clearers often reporting a dud rate of between 10 and 30 percent causing many civilian deaths long after the conflict was finished. Seven major weapon manufacturing companies were excluded from the fund, with detailed reasoning made public after consultation. Five more were excluded as a result of their involvement in developing and manufacturing nuclear weapons such as ‘mini nukes’, BAE was one of them. The Fund’s disinvestment policy has its limitations but lead similar private and public investors to carefully consider who they support. Many companies stopped advertising their involvement in controversial weapons and some larger corporations sold parts of their business involved in the manufacture of cluster munitions.

Plans to largely increase the number of drones used in combat zones this year will inevitably cause higher volumes of unnecessary civilian deaths, arguably rendering them in the same category as cluster weapons. The South Coast Partnership, lead by Kent Police, are planning to support this technology through a major investment of public money for the purpose of spying on UK civilians. They have a stated aim of introducing them as a pilot scheme before implementing the drones for ‘routine policing’ nationwide. It is difficult to conceive how the introduction of multiple drones, being championed for their effectiveness in covering a vast and hostile environment such as Afghanistan, could be used for anything but, nationwide surveillance, over a relatively small island like the UK.

There is no proof that CCTV works as a crime deterrent. An internal report conducted by the Metropolitan Police in August, 2009, contradicted the notion. The findings of the report indicated that for every 1000 crimes reported, less than 1 was solved using CCTV. Separate research commissioned by the Home Office earlier in the year suggested CCTV has done virtually nothing to prevent crime. A House of Lords committee report found that £500 million had been spent on public CCTV cameras in the decade up to 2006. Investment has increased significantly since then with local councils trebling the amount of cameras they own and the ACPO integrating the countries ANPR cameras to record and store every car journey in the UK for period of two years. CCTV seems to be perceived as a favourable economic option as oppose to training more police officers but critics argue an overdependence on technology emerges and overall security is compromised as forces risk drowning existing resources in data. No comparative figures are available for Scotland to date, but as a result of budget cuts, a review of current plans has been called for. Clearly CCTV has advantages when solving crime but there has been little serious debate about the size of investment or the effectiveness of attempting to record the movements of 60 million people 24/7.

Scotland Against Criminalising Communities (SACC) sent Freedom of Information requests to all 32 local councils in Scotland gathering information on the extent to which they were using special powers granted to them under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA). Neil Mackay reported in the Sunday Herald that the act was designed to tackle new threats of the 21st Century such as terrorism, organised crime, internet crime and paedophilia. Instead, local councils are using the powers to spy on ordinary people committing petty offences such as illegal dumping and breaching of the smoking ban! By June 2008, local authority chiefs had ordered their staff to spy on members of the public 3579 times. Edinburgh Council held the worst record, authorising spying on ordinary people 1252 times, including the use of Covert Human Intelligence Sources (CHIS) four times. CHIS could be a friend paid to pass on information or a person being paid to gather information on a target and report back to the bureaucrat. The council said they mostly used the powers for tackling “anti-social behaviour”. Falkirk used RIPA 388 times and Glasgow City Council 44 times. Glasgow claimed they used it to intercept communications data to uncover illegal money lending. SACC argue that there is no safeguards to protect individual privacy and these powers should be given solely to the police and other government security agencies.

There is an estimated 4.2million CCTV camera’s in the UK making us, per head, the most watched society in the world. Our daily physical movements are only one aspect of a digital data trail we leave, voluntarily and involuntarily. Authorities argue the convergence and data mining of this information is vital for both, our own security and collective best interest but this argument has many flaws. The militarization of security and the securitisation of society represent a dangerous political shift towards authoritarianism where the rule of law becomes secondary to neutralizing perceived threats. Our human right to privacy is slowly vanishing and there are inadequate regulations in place controlling who has access to the ‘digital tsunami’ of our personal data which creates broader social problems.

Tony Bunyan of Statewatch outlined some of the some of the current surveillance initiatives in a report titled, “The State of Things to Come”. A 2006 EU directive requires the retention of all communication data across member states. UK Service Providers are required to keep and give access to security agencies records of all phone calls, mobile phone calls (and their location), faxes, emails and internet usage. Government security agencies of other EU countries also have access to this data. It emerged on November 17, 2009 that Christopher Graham, the Information Commissioner, was preparing a criminal prosecution for staff at T-mobile who illegally sold the phone records of 16.6 million customers to third party brokers for marketing purposes. Under current Data Protection legislation, the maximum sentence is a fine of up to £5000. Mr Graham explained that many forms of personal data had a high value and people often unlawfully seek data to intervene, for example, in family courts, to frighten witnesses or pressure jurors.

From 2006, all UK passport applicants are required to give over biometric details including fingerprints and facial measurements such as the distance between your pupils – a unique feature advanced facial recognition technology uses to automatically identify one face in a million instantaneously. Driving licenses now have to be renewed after 10 years so the chip storing details can be adapted and updated.

The new UK National Health database will hold the records of all 60 million people and will be accessible to 350,000 clinicians, the police and security agencies. The EU is planning a new health card arguing the benefits of being able to travel with your medical records. This information will again be available to security agencies of member states.

We are now monitored nationwide by Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) systems whenever we travel by car, this data is stored for two years and current capabilities allows 35 million plates to be recorded every day. Our travel by train or bus is also recorded by CCTV and our communications data when purchasing cheaper tickets online or paying with a card.

In terms of technology, there is not much difference between ID cards and supermarket loyalty cards. They share the same fundamental objective of gathering information about people. Corporations want to know as much as possible about their customers for marketing purposes. As a result, there is a tendency in the private sector to try and integrate the vast layers of data comprising valuable consumer information. The Nectar card operated by Loyalty Management UK has over 50% of the UK population holding one of their loyalty cards. 216 catalogue companies in the UK are signed up to the Abacus data-sharing consortium, with information on 26 million individual consumers. By 2004, Wal-Mart, who owns ASDA, had collected more than 3.4 terabytes of information about its customers worldwide, which equates to more than twice the amount of information held on the internet. Social sorting mechanisms break down the data on the basis of income, lifestyle, and life stage data for each individual and consequently give unequal access to a wide range of public and private services. Preference is increasingly given to people of a particular social, economic or ethnic group in a variety of ways. Advertising of important services are targeted at profitable consumers, excluding people deemed to be commercially marginal. Some would argue this is basic business sense but it is also a subtle form of social control that skews the system against the people already at a disadvantage. This amplifies the root cause of many problems society as a whole faces today.

One of the biggest innovations to evolve from the loyalty card was RFID (Radio Frequency Identification), a powerful tracking technology. A chip in loyalty cards, for example, allows a serial number and other data to be read from a distance of several feet. When A RFID tagged object (or person) passes a reader, its unique serial number is recorded. When connected to a network, it allows a store to work out their customers specific movements inside, for example, to see products they looked at but did not buy. They can also tell if the person shops alone, or with their partner through the personal data already held on the loyalty card. Marks and Spencer use RFID to track their stock. They claim not to be using it to gather further information about their customers but already invest heavily in a wide range of marketing practices and could quite easily integrate data with existing customer details.

This technology will soon be integrated with ID cards so governments will have greater ability to trace our movements. There is no reason why employers won’t, in time, integrate RFID to electronic cards already required to access many workplaces. It would also be rational to assume employers will actively seek access to any of the multiple databases with detailed ‘profiling’ of a perspective employee. Many people use social networking sites such as facebook to promote themselves and their ‘personalities’ in the knowledge that potential employers will be looking. Potentially, broader access to more accurate profile information than social networks would deter individuals from participating in social movements for greater human rights or environmental justice for fear of discrimination from employers. Similar movements have historically been the driving force to vital changes in society and will be a necessity to challenges faced by contemporary society. If we continue on the current path without adequate safeguards, unintentionally or otherwise, detailed profiling will serve as a subtle form of social control.

This is a vital tool of the Chinese Government in controlling social tensions, fuelled by authoritarian rule and neo-liberal economic policies, which have created a super-rich minority that relies on the majority of urban Chinese remaining in poverty. Their current modus operandi is to let protesters demonstrate, identify them using sophisticated surveillance and arrest them later. In China, the ID card (integrated with RFID) is required in order to work or even access the most basic of services, for example, riding a bus. Undercover agents often mingle with the unsuspecting protesters reading the RFID personal data from the ring-leaders ID cards. Countless human rights and democracy activists are behind bars. This sophisticated technique enables the repressive government to falsely champion its democratic values by allowing the protests to proceed. Niomi Klein details the alarming developments in articles such as China’s All-Seeing Eye and The Olympics: Unveiling Police State 2.0. It should be noted that the system is of oppression is underpinned by grossly unequal access to information, otherwise known as ‘The Great Firewall of China’. Cutting edge surveillance technology is being sold to the Government indirectly by leading US firms such as LT-1.

Political philosopher and emeritus professor of Princeton University, Sheldon S. Wolin, has warned of the danger of “Inverted totalitarianism,” as he calls it , which “lies in wielding total power without appearing to, without establishing concentration camps, or enforcing ideological uniformity,  or forcibly suppressing dissident elements so long as they remain ineffectual.” “…democracy can be managed without appearing to be suppressed.”

Nathan Allonby pointed to the probable use of the US Patriot Act to bring down the Eliot Spitzer, Governor of New York, who was speaking out against the Bush Administration for endorsing predatory lending in February 2008. He was also criticising the looming bank bailout but less than 3 weeks later, Spitzer had to resign due to a call girl scandal discovered by government surveillance of his bank account. Allonby argued removing this prominent critic sent a message preventing other would-be opposition from speaking out.

The boundaries between public and private sector surveillance are becoming increasingly blurred resulting in an alarming interdependent relationship based on economic necessity and mutual objectives. For example, in 2004, IBM was awarded a £15 million contract to implement ‘Project Semaphore’, the first phase of the UK e-Borders programme. ‘Project Semaphore’ records airline passengers entering and leaving the UK but has integrated databases with ‘Project Iris’ (also IBM) to match details with bio-metric data. Many passengers are selected for more stringent security checks based of race, particularly one’s with distinctive Muslim names.

Although the debate on surveillance is usually framed in terms of the right to privacy, there is also the important consequence of deepening social divides within society. Through automatic sorting and categorisation processes, surveillance discriminates against individuals, communities and ethnic groups by inhibiting their relative mobility and access to opportunities. Demand in a highly competitive economy separates people as consumers based on their presumed economic and political value as opposed to their initiative and self-determination.

The development of surveillance technologies is a result of a complex interaction between military and economic logic, sometimes referred to as the Security Industrial Complex. The military has always been at the forefront of surveillance research and development. Niomi Klein warns in her book, The Shock Doctrine, of international security companies making vast sums of money on man made and natural disasters. Klein documented the rise of Israeli security companies since 9/11 marketing themselves as experts in fighting Arab terrorists. An alarming trend was the increasing proportion of the countries’ economic growth depends on maintaining a constant sense of fear. As they became a global leader in supplying homeland security technology, their national economy had a vested interest in global instability.

Prior to 9/11, terrorist attacks or war were widely recognised as having a negative effect on stock markets. The shift towards securitisation means that even perceived threats can send security, and intertwined energy stocks, soaring. Elbit, an Israeli weapons manufacturer, has a dominant position in the international drones market. The UK government has an £850 million contract with them to supply drones for use in Afghanistan. This could explain the eagerness of BAE, in search of new markets, to supply drones to Kent Police force.

The European Civil Liberties Network concluded the security approach to social and economic conflict is a choice. Social tensions are usually the result of specific social and economic injustices, inadequate welfare in the form of limited access to fundamental services such as education, health and consequently employment. Tackling poverty and injustice at a local level would undoubtedly produce better results for society. The choice to tackle these problems with armed force, data collection, preventative policing and surveillance, mostly serves the interest of powerful weapon manufacturing companies, certainly not the people.

Current regulation is grossly inadequate but the technology is so fast, it is near impossible for regulators to keep up. Although we already live in an advanced surveillance society, measures could be taken to protect people and make the way data is handled more ethical. There are various individual counter measures or laws such as the Data Protection Act 1998 available, but similar to most of the discussion surrounding surveillance, fail to consider the broader social implications for disadvantaged people.

Legislation could be brought in at the top, where research and development takes place,
ensuring companies carry out a Privacy Impact Assessment (PIA).  A type of risk assessment, that would identify various risks to privacy, life-chances, discrimination, equality and so on. Effective PIA legislation could be a tool for opening up new technology to in-depth scrutiny and debate by the organisation(s) involved, potentially leading to gains in transparency concerning key issues and making it possible for regulators to be successful in their duties. A feasibility study to PIA was conducted by the Scottish Government on their planned information system for social care but there was opposition to developing such measures in public organisations. This is unfortunate in terms of equality. There are various models of PIA but most revolve around fundamental issues of protecting privacy. Unfortunately, there are many obstacles such as the initial financial costs and a box ticking culture for compliance. Alternatively, privacy and human rights do not have to be seen as obstacles to effective surveillance. An effective PIA system could create public trust in surveillance and information sharing.

Considering social effects would be massive shift in the current debate but the object of surveillance should also be questioned. Does it serve broad community interests or the goals of the data collector? When the cost is in the millions, such as the planned introduction of drones, what are the consequences of not implementing new state of the art technology? Are they being introduced out of necessity or mundanely, out of feasibility and desirability? The T-mobile scam mentioned earlier and the abuses by Scottish Councils of RIPA laws are symptoms of an unregulated, advanced surveillance society. Broad Privacy Impact Assessment legislation considering the social effects of new technologies could educate organisations on the consequences of not acting ethically and probably serve community and security interests more effectively.

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  1. wandering raven says:

    Des, are you interested in being part of a network of people concerned with drones? So far nothing is happening that I am aware of, but I am accumulating names of people working/writing on the issue.

    contact: [email protected]

  2. Des O'Sullivan says:

    Hi Jim,

    You can put my name down and keep me posted on any developments. Any proposed group should probably attempt to establish links with the Surveillance Studies Network, Statewatch and similar organisations. Check out this informative and slightly militant response to drones http://crab.wordpress.com/2010/02/11/how-to-down-a-drone/#more-845

    My email is [email protected]

    All the best,

  3. Des says:


    Check out radical British historian, Mark Curtis on “Norway’s dirty little secrets”


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