Rise of the Drones in UK Policing

I’ve been doing a fair amount of speaking about The Singularity recently – if you’re not from around these parts, this is when the Robots take over in 2045.

While most people are simultaneously stunned, excited and frightened (I think that’s a sensible response), there’s some scepticism about it ever actually happening. This is sometimes because people find it hard to get their brains around the speed that’s implicit in exponential growth and thus they believe that such an event can’t happen. But equally, they believe that “they” will never allow it.

I often wonder who “they” might be in this context and point out that “they” allow all kinds of controversial technology to be deployed without discussion by politicians, Us The People or indeed even the press. Such debates, if any, are usually after deployment, not before. For instance, CCTV cameras are now a part of our lives, with the average urban citizen in the UK filmed 70+ times every day. It would be almost impossible to roll these back and eliminate them, so we just accept them.

A similar situation happens with services like Facebook and their constant changing of privacy settings. No debate. No discussion. At least that we can participate in.

Or wind farms, for that matter – controversial for different reasons, certainly. But still no protest until after they’re built.

There’s a very similar, low key roll out being planned right now. And that’s the use of Drones (aka UAs Unmanned Aircraft) for civilian policing. Of course, the positioning is all about UAs in more innocuous use cases, such as crop monitoring or checking railway lines right now. But, as Nancy Mitford might have said, this is the thin end of the wedge.

The proponents are always careful to emphasise that these machines are controlled by humans on the ground. Except, that’s not entirely true either. If contact between controlled and controller is lost, there has to be a contingency that the UA will be able to take over and fly safely on its own. If that facility is already there, it won’t be long before “they” decide that actually, UAs don’t really need to be controlled by a human at all. At first, it’ll be a monitoring role “in case something goes wrong”. And then, that will become less and less important until one person is “monitoring” thousands of the things as they fly around the country.

I’m not actually suggesting that this is a bad thing at this point. Merely demonstrating that this is how seemingly controversial technology gets deployed. We let it. Politicians don’t understand it. And the combination of business and police proceed blithely on.

Regular readers might remember that I rewrote the first chapter of 1984 a few years back to demonstrate what technology would be available to control Winston Smith if he lived today. Add UAs to such a potential nightmare.

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