Drones over the countryside


A country walk became a rather less romantic proposition for courting couples last weekend when Mark Randell, the self-styled “Head of Intelligence” for the League against Cruel Sports, disclosed that his investigators “sit camouflaged in holes for hours on public land.” This is certainly an unsettling thought and worse was to come. He went on to reveal that the League now wishes to use unmanned aircraft – drones – to gather evidence against hunters on private land. The inspectors will be able to emerge from their holes, exchange their camouflage fatigues for something more comfortable and sit in front of computer screens. It would be little surprise if some of the more zealous hole sitters – though not, of course, the leadership – were fairly relaxed about using their drones to conduct surgical strikes on selected Masters of Foxhounds and the distinguished hunting philosopher Professor Roger Scruton.

Aside from the consideration that most of us do not want these investigators, even if they are unarmed, staring down at us from the skies any more than we want them looking up at us from their holes, the use of drones to gather evidence like this would be unlawful unless authorised under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (known in the trade as “RIPA,” pronounced as in “Yorkshire”). Although a large number of public bodies, including local authorities, are able to grant such authorisation, thankfully they do not yet include the League, nor its equally aggressive and much richer ally (which has pointedly refused to rule out using such evidence) the RSPCA.

So if Mr Randell decides to unleash his drones, the hunters, and anyone else with the landowner’s authority, would be perfectly entitled and perhaps honour-bound to try to shoot them down. But if that fails, and they will be a lot harder to hit than high flying pheasants, could the evidence they gather be admissible in court?

The answer, perhaps surprisingly, is “yes”. Although the Police and Criminal Evidence Act gives judges a wide discretion, under English common law the mere fact that evidence has been unlawfully obtained does not make it inadmissible, . However, the law of privacy that has largely grown up under the Human Rights Act does offer huntsmen some protection. The court would have to consider whether gathering evidence by drones was “proportionate” and “necessary for the prevention of crime.”

“The innocent have nothing to fear,” Mr Randell would say with the cold-eyed logic of the fanatic. “Technology developed to fight Al-Qaeda is necessary to fight wildlife criminals”. We must hope that such sophistry does not prevail. Most of those happy to see ever more sophisticated surveillance of “wildlife criminals” would be decidedly unhappy were they themselves to be the objects of surveillance, as indeed some of them used to be when they were anarchic hunt saboteurs instead of self-appointed law enforcers.

It is now almost impossible to move in our towns and cities without being followed on CCTV. Many trains and buses are festooned with the unfunny admonition: “smile you’re on camera!”. Quite possibly this infrastructure of institutionalised snooping does somewhat increase our safety, although the evidence is somewhat ambiguous. At least most systems are operated under the informal oversight of and in co-operation with the police, who usually take their duties to comply with the law extremely seriously. But whatever the benefits, it is at best a necessary evil. As surveillance technology becomes cheaper and more widespread private organisations with political axes to grind will find it hard to resist trying to use it. Local authorities, many of whom already work closely with the RSPCA in animal cruelty prosecutions, have granted themselves “RIPA” authorities to enable them covertly to film those suspected of giving false addresses to get into popular schools, and it is far from fanciful to imagine them doing the same to spy on hunters.

There is a real danger here. We are prepared to surrender a certain amount of our liberty in exchange for greater safety and less crime, but it is a difficult balance to strike. Within a tight legal framework, we allow an apolitical, trained and accountable police force to use technology to catch serious criminals, but we would be appalled if they used their technology to spy on our every movement, even in the middle of the countryside.

When members of political organisations, accountable only to their own members, and unconstrained by any legal restraints, talk about using technology to conduct covert surveillance on their fellow citizens the law should do nothing to encourage them.

It is bad enough to think of Mr Randell’s camouflaged troglodytes peeping at us out of their holes as we go for our country walks. We must hope that any English judge, whatever their views on the morality of hunting, would view the prospect of our airspace filling up with spy-planes remotely piloted by such people as utterly repugnant.


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