No rules for NZ Police surveillance drones

New Zealand Police have no authorization from the Civil Aviation Authority to operate their recently acquired surveillance drone - no procedures manual governing its operation – and the police won’t say what it is or what it can do … Why?

New Zealand Police seem to have jumped into the deep-end with their decision to buy an un-manned aerial vehicle. You’d expect them to try and specify before they buy. But, no. They’ve purchased their UAV drone before deciding what they want to do with it.

Police briefing notes - obtained as a result of an Official Information request - say that they are “starting an evaluation of the use of unmanned aerial vehicles. This evaluation is at very early stages and no decisions have been made yet about their use.”

The notes also say the police have not trained any staff to operate their drone, which is probably just as well because another OIA request to the Civil Aviation Authority confirms that the police do not actually have the required authorization to operate an unmanned aerial vehicle. Presumably, the drone they have purchased is sitting in someone’s office like a very big kid’s toy while their evaluation proceeds in flightless mode.

However, the police will not reveal the make or model of their new toy:

“… as the disclosure of the information would be likely to prejudice the maintenance of the law, including the prevention, investigation and detection of offences, and the right to a fair trial”.

Utter tosh! The United States and UK police have been delighted to name names and demonstrate the capacity of newly-acquired drones.

Perhaps the real reason for the coyness about the particular drone our police have purchased is more to do with the fact that the police have used external contractors to operate UAVs for them in at least two investigations already. These operations involved two different types of UAV. In both cases the evidence they gathered has yet to be presented and tested – one in a coroner’s inquest and the other in a Court case.

New Zealand Police are also tight-lipped about the kind of surveillance functions their drone is equipped to perform. Their National Manager – Operations Barry Taylor performed a spectacular sideways shuffle  in response to our OIA request for the surveillance functions that the police envisage for their UAV:

“This is not a request for information held as no decision has been made on the constraints or purposes that UAV’s may be used.”

However, their briefing note mentions some of the capabilities that have attracted their interest in the demonstrations they’ve been given by UAV manufacturers. These include still and video digital imagery, 3 dimensional imagery, and forward-looking infra-red technology to obtain night-time imagery.

Other UAV-borne surveillance technology includes thermal tracking, see-through radar that can track movements inside buildings, and fume sensor and identification systems.

The final oddity is the police response to a request for a copy of the NZ Police operations manual, or instructions governing their use of UAVs and storage and access to imagery and other data gathered by UAVs  performing NZ Police surveillance tasks. The answer:

“Police do not currently have a specific UAV policy, hence your request is declined … as the information requested does not exist.. Police do have a policy on video recording operations and events. The imagery accumulated during drone flights will currently fall under these controls.”

Very strange that there is no operations manual covering the use of UAVs, given NZ Police have already hired them from external contractors for use in their operations. The Seattle Police Department recently released their UAV  operational manual – and it’s interesting to note some of the issues they covered.

First, the Seattle police UAV unit commanders are instructed to ensure that UAV use intrudes to a minimal extent on the citizens, their civil rights and their reasonable expectations of privacy. Second, the UAV unit will not conduct random surveillance activities and if there are any doubts about the legitimacy of a planned operation, they are to ensure that warrants and applied for and obtained. Third, when a UAV mission is being flown, the onboard cameras will be turned to face away from occupied structures and unrelated sites to minimise inadvertent video or still images of uninvolved persons.

The fact that UAVs can provide insight into private properties from a perspective that is not readily accessible to ordinary members of the public, and into areas where people have a reasonable expectation of privacy is recognised in Seattle – but not in New Zealand.

But if you think the Seattle police manual provides an adequate level of protections for citizen’s civil rights and reasonable expectations of privacy, the citizens of Seattle do not. This month, Seattle’s mayor Mike McGinn and his police chief John Diaz agreed that it was time to end the city’s UAV programme ”so that SPD can focus its resources on public safety and the community building work that is the department’s priority.”

Seattle’s decision to ground its drones comes as lawmakers in at least 11 other states of the United States are considering plans to restrict the use of UAVS in their skies in response to mounting concern that drone surveillance technology can be exploited to spy and pry into law abiding citizen’s private lives.