Mark Whitehead 03 May 2019

The use of drones in local government

Mass interception of communications, harvesting of information by big social media companies, government monitoring of private conversations: such are the problems and dilemmas of life in the internet age.

Now a new factor has emerged in the continuing debate about how to balance the rights of governmental agencies against the rights of individuals to freedom from an overbearing state.

Dozens of councils have received commercial drone licences from the Civil Aviation Authority, according to research by the Telegraph.

North Yorkshire, it seems, is the latest to use drone technology. It is not a planning authority, but for those that are, it could be used, for example, to check whether people have kept the size of their new extension within the agreed limits.

Inevitably, however, this has prompted concerns from civil liberties campaigners who fear it means a green light for the expansion of state surveillance.

As one contributor to an online forum put it: 'wow, the councils are going to be flying around filming you all as you are going about your day, peering in your windows and back yards '

The campaigning group Big Brother Watch has called for guidelines to include safeguards making sure authorities do not have unlimited freedom to zoom in on private property without good reason.

Several councils already use drones for a range of activities such as investigating fly tipping. But the idea of using them to examine peoples' back gardens takes the debate to a new level.

Drones – or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles in industry parlance – can be used for a range of enforcement activities including inspecting poor roofing work by a rogue traders, flying over open land looking for livestock carcasses or inspecting sites in relation to breaches of planning controls.

These are just a few examples of how the technology can help councils and other public bodies to 'work smarter', make more efficient use of resources and enhance health and safety.

The benefits are clear. In many sectors being able to fly a machine above hard-to-get-at installations or large tracts of land is massively cheaper than employing small aircraft. As they are unmanned, there is no threat to health and safety. Drones are incredibly agile and the latest technology means they can provide rich, detailed visual information.

Councils who have seized upon drone technology as a way to improve their information in areas such as fly tipping or to inspect land for potential development should be congratulated for their initiative.

Most members of the public will welcome such developments as a sensible and cost-saving way to improve services on their behalf. Nobody likes a fly-tipper.

And bodged building work is a huge problem, costing the UK £10 billion a year according to the Federation of Master Builders. Most people would welcome a crackdown on that, too.

But as with every advance in information technology, there are important caveats.

People are sensitive to what many see as the creeping power of the state, multinationals and social media companies into their everyday lives. In the UK in particular, we have a tradition of individual liberty which most would want to see protected at all costs.

Attempts to introduce identity cards, accepted unquestioningly in most countries including the US and in continental Europe, are routinely met with resistance from civil liberties campaigners.

Recent experiments with voter ID for local and national elections have prompted heartfelt objections in some quarters for similar reasons.

The benefits of using drones to inspect shoddy building work – and many other activities – can far outweigh any threat to individual liberty.

But this will only happen if sensible policies covering issues of privacy and clearly limiting the use of drones are developed and rigorously followed in an open and straightforward way.

Councils should be seen as public bodies acting on their behalf of their communities to improve the environment, making peoples' lives easier and more enjoyable, and usually are.

But occasional mishaps can spoil that image and spark accusations of overwheening authority.

Debate over the use of this powerful new technology will no doubt continue at local and national levels.

But it seems clear that drones can be a huge benefit to the public and most people will welcome them – as long as they are accompanied by robust measures to ensure they are not misused.

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