Provision of information held by Northumbria Police made under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (the 'Act')
As you may be aware the purpose of the Act is to allow a general right of access to information held at the time of a request, by a Public Authority (including the Police), subject to certain limitations and exemptions.
I seek information in relation to the use of drones; any review conducted into the deployment of drones; relevant policy or guidance documents. Request for information
1. Does your police force use drones/unmanned aerial surveillance?
2. Has your police force purchased drones / unmanned aerial surveillance equipment in the last 2 years?
3 a. If yes to (2) please confirm the company from whom the drones were purchased, the types of drones i.e. specification, and a copy of the purchase agreement/contract.
3 b. If you purchased drones / unmanned aerial surveillance equipment over 2 years ago and have documentation in relaiton to the company from whom they were purchased, the types of drones, purchase agreement, please provide this information.
4. Please provide a copy of any national or local guidance upon which you rely in relation to deployment of drones / unmanned aerial surveillance.
5. Please confirm the legal basis upon which you rely in deployment of these tools.
6. Please provide a copy of any review conducted into the depoyment of drones / unmanned aerial surveillance.
7. Please a) confirm whether you keep a central record of deployment of drones / unmanned aerial surveillace and/or have a means by which to audit drone deployment. b) Provide information in relation to the uses within the past 2 years of drones e.g. monitoring protests, missing persons, traffic monitoring etc. If possible please provide statistics in relation to deployment e.g. number of times deployed for traffic monitoring.
8. Please provide information confirming whether any officers have been subject to misconduct proceedings or any disciplinary measures or other proceedings in relation to deployment of drones / aerial surveillance.
We have now had the opportunity to fully consider your request and I provide a response for your attention.
With regards to the overt use of drones I can confirm that the information requested is not held. Northumbria Police have not purchased/do not use drones in this capacity.
With regards to covert use I respond as follows.
In addition, in regard to any information relating to the covert use of drones, Northumbria Police neither confirms nor denies that it holds any other information relevant to the request by virtue of the following exemptions:
Section 23(5) - Information supplied by, or concerning, certain security bodies
Section 24(2) - National Security
Section 31(3) - Law Enforcement
Section 23 is an absolute class-based exemption and there is no requirement to conduct a harm or public interest test.
Sections 24, and 31 are prejudice based qualified exemptions and there is a requirement to articulate the harm that would be caused in confirming or denying that any other information is held as well as carrying out a public interest test.
Harm for partial NCND
As you may be aware, disclosure under FOIA is a release to the public at large. Whilst not questioning the motives of the applicant, confirming or denying that any other information is held regarding the use of this specialist equipment for covert use, would show criminals what the capacity, tactical abilities and capabilities of the force are, allowing them to target specific areas of the UK to conduct their criminal/terrorist activities. Confirming or denying the specific circumstances in which the police service may or may not deploy drones, would lead to an increase of harm to covert investigations and compromise law enforcement. This would be to the detriment of providing an efficient policing service and a failure in providing a duty of care to all members of the public.
The threat from terrorism cannot be ignored. It is generally recognised that the international security landscape is increasingly complex and unpredictable. Since 2006, the UK Government have published the threat level, based upon current intelligence and that threat has remained at the second highest level, ‘severe’, except for four short periods in August 2006, June 2007, May and September 2017 when it was raised ‘critical’, highest threat level. The UK continues to face a sustained threat from violent extremists and terrorists.
It is well established that police forces use covert tactics and surveillance to gain intelligence in order to counteract criminal behaviour. It has been previously documented in the media that many terrorist incidents have been thwarted due to intelligence gained by these means.
Confirming or denying that any other information is held in relation to the covert use of drones would limit operational capabilities as criminals/terrorists would gain a greater understanding of the police's methods and techniques, enabling them to take steps to counter them. It may also suggest the limitations of police capabilities in this area, which may further encourage criminal/terrorist activity by exposing potential vulnerabilities. This detrimental effect is increased if the request is made to several different law enforcement bodies. In addition to the local criminal fraternity now being better informed, those intent on organised crime throughout the UK will be able to ‘map’ where the use of certain tactics are or are not deployed. This can be useful information to those committing crimes. It would have the likelihood of identifying location-specific operations which would ultimately compromise police tactics, operations and future prosecutions as criminals could counteract the measures used against them.
Any information identifying the focus of policing activity could be used to the advantage of terrorists or criminal organisations. Information that undermines the operational integrity of these activities will adversely affect public safety and have a negative impact on both national security and law enforcement.
Factors favouring Neither Confirming Nor Denying for Section 24
The information if held simply relates to national security and confirming or denying whether it is held would not actually harm it. The public are entitled to know what public funds are spent on and what security measures are in place, and by confirming or denying whether any other information regarding the covert use of drones is held, would lead to a better-informed public.
Factors against Neither Confirming Nor Denying for Section 24
By confirming or denying whether any other information is held would render Security measures less effective. This would lead to the compromise of ongoing or future operations to protect the security or infra-structure of the UK and increase the risk of harm to the public.
Factors favouring Neither Confirming Nor Denying for Section 31
Confirming or denying whether any other information is held regarding the covert use of drones would provide an insight into the police service. This would enable the public to have a better understanding of the effectiveness of the police and about how the police gather intelligence. It would greatly assist in the quality and accuracy of public debate, which could otherwise be steeped in rumour and speculation. Where public funds are being spent, there is a public interest in accountability and justifying the use of public money.
Some information is already in the public domain regarding the police use of this type of specialist equipment and confirming or denying whether any other information is held would ensure transparency and accountability and enable the public to see what tactics are deployed by the Police Service to detect crime.
Factors against Neither Confirming Nor Denying for Section 31
Confirming or denying that any other information is held regarding the covert use of drones would have the effect of compromising law enforcement tactics and would also hinder any future investigations. In addition, confirming or denying methods used to gather intelligence for an investigation would prejudice that investigation and any possible future proceedings.
It has been recorded that FOIA releases are monitored by criminals and terrorists and so to confirm or deny any other information is held concerning specialist covert tactics would lead to law enforcement being undermined. The Police Service is reliant upon all manner of techniques during operations and the public release of any modus operandi employed, if held, would prejudice the ability of the Police Service to conduct similar investigations.
By confirming or denying whether any information is held in relation to the covert use of drones would hinder the prevention or detection of crime. The Police Service would not wish to reveal what tactics may or may not have been used to gain intelligence as this would clearly undermine the law enforcement and investigative process. This would impact on police resources and more crime and terrorist incidents would be committed, placing individuals at risk. It can be argued that there are significant risks associated with providing information, if held, in relation to any aspect of investigations or of any nation's security arrangements so confirming or denying that any other information is held, may reveal the relative vulnerability of what we may be trying to protect.
The security of the country is of paramount importance and the Police service will not divulge whether any other information is or is not held regarding the covert use of drones if to do so would place the safety of an individual at risk, undermine National Security or compromise law enforcement.
Whilst there is a public interest in the transparency of policing operations and providing assurance that the police service is appropriately and effectively engaging with the threat posed by various groups or individuals, there is a very strong public interest in safeguarding the integrity of police investigations and operations in the highly sensitive areas such as extremism, crime prevention, public disorder and terrorism prevention.
As much as there is public interest in knowing that policing activity is appropriate and balanced this will only be overridden in exceptional circumstances. The areas of police interest discussed above are sensitive issues that reveal local intelligence and therefore it is our opinion that for these issues the balancing test for confirming or denying whether any other information is held regarding the covert use of drones, is not made out.
However, this should not be taken as necessarily indicating that any information that would meet your request exists or does not exist.