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The Hermes 900 drone was first used in the 2014 Gaza conflict by the Israeli military(Wikimedia/Creative Commons)


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Plans by the National Police Air Service (NPAS) to use Israeli military-grade drones to replace helicopters and aeroplanes have raised concerns among privacy campaigners.

Initial tests of the systems took place alongside a wider trial organised by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA), which is considering using the technology to assist rescue operations.

Policing minister Kit Malthouse welcomed the news on Monday, saying that the trials “may point to a new and more effective way for the police’s air service to do its vital job”. 

But Kevin Blowe, coordinator at the Network for Police Monitoring (Netpol) campaign group, said he was “horrified” by the plans, arguing that they “massively increase the capacity for intrusive surveillance on the public”.

The use of drones in policing is not new—Devon and Cornwall Police and Dorset Police jointly became the first UK police forces to adopt the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in November 2015. But, the scale of the technology used by these forces and those trialled by NPAS are very different.

One UAV model used by British police is the DJI Mavic 2 Enterprise, which costs around £2,800, weighs less than a kilogram, and has a 29-minute battery life with an operating range of 5km. 

The Israeli-made Elbit Systems Hermes 900 craft being trialled by the NPAS and MCA, meanwhile, has a 15-metre wingspan, weighs 970kg, and can fly for up to 36 hours at altitudes of 30,000 feet.

Part of the controversy of the trials stems from the fact that the Hermes 900 model was first used by the Israeli Air Force during the 2014 Gaza conflict when it was used to conduct surveillance on Hamas militants.

Drones manufactured by Elbit Systems have also been linked with airstrikes on Palestinian civilians, according to a report revealed by The Intercept in 2018.

The company has been targetted by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement which protests Israeli policies towards Palestinians, resulting in both insurance firm AXA and bank HSBC divesting from Elbit in recent years.

Home Office officials are now looking at whether similar drone systems could replace police fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters for tasks such as protest surveillance, pursuing suspects and missing person searches. 

The key ethical challenge facing the National Police Air Service is to somehow reconcile security needs and privacy rights while still maintaining traditional policing-by-consent principles – Prof Peter Lee, University of Portsmouth

The use of these long-range UAVs, however, raises a number of wider concerns among experts, campaign groups and MPs alike, such as the civil liberty implications of long-range surveillance and the controversies surrounding the drone’s manufacturers.

“On one side is the responsibility of the Home Office and the police to protect the UK population, respond to disasters, investigate crime, control borders, find missing people, and more. Large UAVs like the Hermes 900 provide a potentially invaluable tool to support these activities,” Peter Lee, a specialist in drone ethics at the University of Portsmouth, told PoliticsHome.

“On the other side is a requirement to respect and protect individual rights to liberty and privacy when large amounts of data can be gathered very quickly.

“The key ethical challenge facing the National Police Air Service is to somehow reconcile security needs and privacy rights while still maintaining traditional policing-by-consent principles.”

Mr Blowe, from Netpol, favours the latter argument, believing that citizen’s rights outweigh the needs of law enforcement.

“[These drones] will massively increase the capacity for intrusive surveillance on the public and have enormous implications on everything from rights to privacy to the use of this technology on citizens exercising their democratic rights to protest against government policy,” he told PoliticsHome.

And, concerns such as these about the use of UAVs have been compounded the impact emergency coronavirus legislation is seen to be having on civil liberties.

Drones are an extreme, militaristic form of surveillance, we’ve seen too many examples of police using them aggressively in place of measured public health communications – Silkie Carlo, director of Big Brother Watch

New powers granted by the Coronavirus Bill in March made it easier for the police to use drones to enforce lockdown restrictions, by allowing them to be flown at a higher altitude and beyond the line of sight of the operating officer.

Derbyshire Police have since used drone footage to shame dog walkers and ramblers visiting the Peak District, while Surrey Police flew a “sky talk” drone playing a pre-recorded message to disperse groups talking a walk over the Easter weekend.

“Drones are an extreme, militaristic form of surveillance,” Silkie Carlo, director of Big Brother Watch, told The Times in April. 

“We’ve seen too many examples of police using them aggressively in place of measured public health communications. Police using drones to surveil and bark orders at members of the public is usually excessive and counterproductive.”

Those in favour of drone technology, however, believe that their use can be expanded if the legislation is sufficiently scrutinised. 

“The trial and potential roll-out of military-grade drones such as the Elbit Systems Hermes 900 in national police forces should be seen in the wider context of the emergency powers agreed to address the Covid-19 crisis,” said Alex Sobel, Labour MP and vice-chair of the APPG on Drones.

“Nobody can dispute that the pandemic is a genuine emergency and it is necessary to give the police powers of enforcement to respond to it. 

“However, in light of the new capabilities drones can provide—including facial recognition or the addition of non-lethal weapons—it is reasonable to call for robust scrutiny and clear and timely information to ensure we get it right.”

Few people would argue with using drones to help find a missing child or vulnerable person – Lord Toby Harris

Meanwhile, Lord Toby Harris, who sits on the national security strategy joint committee, argued that the use of any UAVs needs to be “proportionate to the harm or criminality that the police are seeking to prevent.”

He added: “Few people would argue with using drones to help find a missing child or vulnerable person, but the police would have to be able to defend the use if the investigation was into a much less serious matter, such as a parking offence.”

And, beyond the balancing act of civil liberty vs security, drones both large and small may have a wider benefit to the public in terms of cost and noise pollution.

Florence Eshalomi, Labour MP for Vauxhall, told PoliticsHome that she welcomes the use of long-range drones in built-up areas to reduce the impact on local residents.

“Representing an inner London constituency bordering Westminster and the protest near Parliament Square, I have received many complaints from residents about the use of police helicopters,” she said.

“I fully appreciate that the police need to use a range of measures during protests and other policing activities but this is not a sustainable or cost-effective use of police resource. 

She continued: “The noise nuisance caused by the helicopters hovering in one place for what can seem like hours above residential housing, especially late at night, makes it very difficult for local residents.”

But, whether long-range drones will soon replace helicopters and aeroplanes in UK policing is still uncertain, as NPAS officials claiming the change is still under consideration. 

Captain Ollie Dismore, Director of Flight Operations at the National Police Air Service said: “With continuous advances in UAV capabilities, UK policing is rightly seeking to explore the viability of platforms such as these for possible future use in delivering police air support nationally.

He added: “If this technology enables us to fulfil our national remit more efficiently and either as or more effectively than with our current assets, then it will be considered as part of a future national police air service fleet.”

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France teacher attack: Macron urges Russia to boost anti-terror fight

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image copyrightReuters

image captionA silent march was held in honour of Samuel Paty on Tuesday in the Paris suburb where he was killed

French President Emmanuel Macron has urged Russia to boost co-operation in fighting terrorism after the beheading of a teacher by a Russian-born man.

Mr Macron’s comments came in a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who described Friday’s attack near Paris as a “barbarous murder”.

Samuel Paty, 47, was killed after showing controversial cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad to his pupils.

The attacker was named as Abdullakh Anzorov, an 18-year-old ethnic Chechen.

Anzorov was shot dead by police shortly after the attack close to the teacher’s school in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, north-west of the French capital.

image copyrightAFP
image captionSamuel Paty, a well-liked teacher, had been threatened over showing the cartoons

The brutal murder has shocked France.

  • Beheading of teacher deepens divisions in France

On Wednesday evening, Mr Macron will attend an official memorial at the Sorbonne University to award Mr Paty posthumously the Légion d’honneur – France’s highest order of merit.

What did Macron and Putin say?

Mr Macron said he wanted to see a “strengthening of Franco-Russian co-operation in the fight against terrorism and illegal immigration”, the French presidency said.

It provided no further details about Tuesday’s phone call with President Putin.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin published a brief statement quoting Mr Putin as saying that both parties “reaffirmed their mutual interest in intensifying joint efforts in the fight against terrorism and the propagation of extremist ideology”.

What is known about Anzorov?

Anzorov was born in Moscow but had lived in France since 2008. His family is from Russia’s Muslim-majority Chechnya region in the North Caucasus.

He arrived in France with his family as refugees, French media report.

His grandfather and 17-year-old brother have been questioned and released in the aftermath of the attack.

Russia has played down any association with the attacker.

“This crime has no relation to Russia because this person had lived in France for the past 12 years,” Sergei Parinov, a spokesman of the Russian embassy in Paris, told the Tass news agency on Saturday.

Mosque closed amid mass raids

Meanwhile, French media reported that the father of a pupil accused of launching an online campaign against the teacher had sent messages to the killer before the attack.

The father – who has not been named – is accused, along with a preacher described by the media as a radical Islamist, of calling for Mr Paty to be punished by issuing a so-called “fatwa” (considered a legal ruling by Islamic scholars).

media captionFrench minister: Lessons on freedom of expression will continue

Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin said the two men had been arrested and were being investigated for an “assassination in connection with a terrorist enterprise”.

Police have raided some 40 homes, following the attack. Sixteen people were taken in custody but six were later released.

On Tuesday, Mr Macron said the Sheikh Yassin Collective – an Islamist group named after the founder of the Palestinian militant group Hamas – would be outlawed for being “directly involved” in the killing.

He said the ban was a way of helping France’s Muslim community, Europe’s largest, from the influence of radicalism.

The government also ordered a mosque to close for sharing videos on Facebook calling for action against Mr Paty and sharing his school’s address in the days before his death.

The Pantin mosque, which has about 1,500 worshippers and is situated just north of Paris, will close for six months on Wednesday. The mosque expressed “regret” over the videos, which it has deleted, and condemned the teacher’s killing.

Why was Samuel Paty targeted?

On Monday, anti-terrorism prosecutor Jean-François Ricard said Mr Paty had been the target of threats since he showed the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad during a class about freedom of speech earlier in October.

The history and geography teacher advised Muslim students to leave the room if they thought they might be offended.

Mr Ricard said that the killer had gone to the school on Friday afternoon and asked students to point out the teacher. He then followed Mr Paty as he walked home from work and used a knife to attack him.

The issue is particularly sensitive in France because of the decision by satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo to publish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.

A trial is currently under way over the killing of 12 people by Islamist extremists at the magazine’s offices in 2015 following their publication.

media captionRallies in Paris, Toulouse, Lyon and other French cities in support of Samuel Paty

France’s Muslim community comprises about 10% of the population.

Some French Muslims say they are frequent targets of racism and discrimination because of their faith – an issue that has long caused tension in the country.

Related Topics

  • Emmanuel Macron

  • France
  • Paris
  • Vladimir Putin
  • Islamist extremism
  • Freedom of expression
  • Samuel Paty: Beheading of teacher deepens divisions over France’s secular identity

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Nigeria protests: Eyewitnesses say security forces fired at protesters

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Demonstrators have taken part in daily protests across the country for nearly two weeks over widespread claims of kidnapping, harassment, and extortion by a police unit know as the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). Tuesday saw the state governor impose a 24-hour curfew and deploy anti-riot police to the city.

One witness at the protests, Akinbosola Ogunsanya, said the shooting began after the lights were turned off at the Nigerian city’s Lekki tollgate. “Members of the Nigerian army pulled up on us and they started firing,” he said. “They were shooting, they were firing straight, directly at us, and a lot of people got hit. I just survived, barely.”

Ogunsanya added that barricades on either side of the scene were blocking ambulances.

Another witness, Temple Onanugbo, said he heard what he believed were bullets being fired from his home nearby and that the sound lasted “for about 15 to 30 minutes.”

Speaking to CNN from the scene of the shooting, Onanugbo said he saw “multiple bodies laying on the ground,” when he arrived to help those injured.

CNN has not yet been able to confirm casualties.

The State Government has ordered an investigation into the incident, according to the Lagos Governor’s spokesman, Gboyega Akosile. According to a tweet by Akosile, Lagos Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu has also “advised security agents not to arrest anyone on account of the curfew.”

The protests at the Lekki toll gate have been mostly peaceful, with demonstrators singing the national anthem, staging sit-ins, and praying.

Earlier in the day, Sanwo-Olu had imposed a 24-hour curfew, including the closure of all Lagos schools. Only essential service providers and first responders have permission to be on the streets of Lagos, which has an estimated population of more than 20 million people.

“Dear Lagosians, I have watched with shock how what began as a peaceful #EndSARS protest has degenerated into a monster that is threatening the well-being of our society,” Sanwo-Olu tweeted as he announced the 4 pm (local time) curfew.

SARS was disbanded on October 11 and a new police unit to replace it will be trained by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Reuters reported Monday. Protesters are demanding further protections against the police, including independent oversight and psychological evaluation of officers.

Death and severe injuries amid the protests have been reported since the weekend.

Amnesty International said on its Twitter account Tuesday that it has received “credible but disturbing evidence” of “excessive use of force occasioning deaths of protesters.”

A 17-year-old died in police custody on Monday in Kano, a city in the north of the country, after allegedly being tortured, according the human rights group. Many protestors and journalists were assaulted by police and thugs in the capital Abuja on the same day. Videos on social media show dozens of cars belonging to protestors burning and Amnesty International said three people died.

“While we continue to investigate the killings, Amnesty International wishes to remind the authorities that under international law, security forces may only resort to the use of lethal force when strictly unavoidable to protect against imminent threat of death or serious injury,” Amnesty also tweeted.

Other videos show a mass breakout of hundreds of prisoners from the Benin Correctional Center in Edo state in southern Nigeria. It is uncertain who is to blame for the breakout, with protestors claiming it was staged by police. The Nigeria Police Force said in a tweet that protestors carted away arms and ammunition from the armory before freeing suspects in custody and setting the facilities alight.

Edo state governor Godwin Obaseki imposed a curfew on Monday, tweeting about “disturbing incidents of vandalism and attacks on private individuals and institutions by hoodlums in the guise of #EndSARS protesters.”

Riot police have been deployed across the country. According to a tweet from the Nigerian Police Force on Tuesday evening, the Inspector-General of Nigeria’s Police has ordered the immediate nationwide deployment of anti-riot police officers “to protect lives and property of all Nigerians and secure critical national infrastructure across the country.”

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Judge tosses lawsuit challenging DeVos’ sexual misconduct rule for schools, colleges

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Background: The ruling comes as a major victory for DeVos, whose Title IX policies will be a key part of her legacy as secretary. She has said the rule officially codifies protections to hold schools accountable by ensuring survivors are not brushed aside and no student’s guilt is predetermined.

The ACLU had charged that DeVos’ Title IX rule, which took effect in August, violated the Administrative Procedure Act because the provisions “were arbitrary and capricious and an abuse of discretion.” The lawsuit had sought to vacate the rule.

On behalf of four plaintiffs, the ACLU argued that the rule will reduce the number of sexual assault and harassment complaints requiring a response from schools.

The lawsuit took aim at the rule’s definition of sexual harassment, as well as provisions that allow institutions to use a “clear and convincing evidence standard.” The groups that brought the lawsuit also take issue with the fact that DeVos’ rule only holds institutions accountable under Title IX for “deliberate indifference” and only requires a school or school official to respond to sexual harassment if there is “actual knowledge.”

Other legal challenges: The lawsuit was one of four ongoing cases challenging the Title IX rule. The other three are still pending but have been largely unsuccessful. All argue that the Education Department violated the law with its new rule by acting beyond its authority, and that the rule is arbitrary and capricious.

A circuit court judge in the District of Columbia denied a request from attorneys general in 17 states and the District of Columbia to stop the new rule and to block it as legal action continues. Another judge also denied a motion to block the rule from taking effect in New York while the litigation is ongoing. Southern District of New York Judge John G. Koeltl said state officials failed to show they are likely to win in their argument that the Trump administration acted “arbitrarily and capriciously” when it finalized its rule.

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