INTELLIGENT drones that can see in the dark will be used for secret police spy missions, Police Scotland has said.

Drones equipped with “intelligent computer systems and thermal imaging” are being developed by Scottish universities for use by the force.

Plans are already under way to purchase two relatively low-tech off the shelf drones for Aberdeen and Inverness, primarily for use in missing persons searches.

HeraldScotland:

However, Police Scotland is working with Glasgow University’s Aerospace Sciences Research Division and the University of the West of Scotland on bespoke Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) with high-tech intelligent sensors.

Read more: Camley Cartoon on drones

The drones are expected to be deployed operationally in March.

As well as missing persons, the drones will be used for crime and defensive searches, public order and chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear incidents, and will be used for covert surveillance in extreme circumstances.

Police Scotland said: “In the first instance these systems are designed as an overt policing tool and are not, at least initially, intended to be used for covert surveillance other than in extremis.”

HeraldScotland:

Assistant Chief Constable Nelson Telfer, Police Scotland lead for operational support, told the Scottish Police Authority that the drones could be deployed covertly under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (Scotland) Act 2000 (RIPSA), which governs the way police forces and other bodies carry out snooping on suspects or people caught up in criminal investigations, and its UK counterpart RIPA which regulates counter-terrorism surveillance.

However, ACC Telfer told an SPA board meeting in Dundee that drones could also be deployed for other covert operations outside of RIPSA/RIPA.

Read more: Camley Cartoon on drones

He said that their position around the use of UAVs would be that they would ordinarily be used for overt police work. But the senior officer added it would seem “ridiculous” if one could not be used covertly if a human life was at stake. He added that would “seem unethical”.

“However, my commitment to you as an authority is, if this becomes a regular and sustained use, we will bring that back and make that visible that we are using it.

“But under RIPSA, which is the Scottish legislation, or it could be RIPA, which is the UK-wide legislation for terrorism, when we might use covert policing techniques to mount surveillance.

HeraldScotland:

“Independent scrutiny of our work in terms of using that legislation is conducted every year, and if we did engage in that using the UAV drones then we would comply with those two pieces of legislation in the main, although they are not the sole arbiter of our use.”

Police forces have been criticised in the past for using RIPSA powers to uncover journalists’ sources, while the security services have also snooped on lawyers representing clients.

John Finnie MSP, Justice spokesman for the Scottish Greens, said: “It’s officers, intelligence and police dogs that find people.

“These so-called ‘intelligent’ drones will simply be used as a further tool of widespread surveillance.

“Police Scotland initially frustrated the Parliament’s Police Committee’s efforts to uncover the extend of wrong-doing, highlighted by Interception of Communications Commissioner’s Office (IOCCO), whereby they spied of serving and former officers.

Read more: Camley Cartoon on drones

“At this time, there are three police forces, Durham, Northumbria and Police Service of Northern Ireland enquiring into the aftermath of those cases and, until such times as we have a clear understanding of the extent of Police Scotland’s wrong-doing, and receive assurances that there will be no repetition, then I don’t believe they should be able to add any new surveillance toys to their already significant arsenal that includes officers with body-worn cameras, CCTV and automatic number plate recognition.”

Matthew Rice, Scotland Director, of civil liberties body Open Rights Group said: "Currently, no police forces in the UK are using UAVs for covert surveillance: Police Scotland should not be the first until the opportunity for proper public debate.” 

"Police Scotland have got it the wrong way round, they shouldn’t be waiting for the use of UAVs for surveillance to become 'sustained' before bringing it to the public’s knowledge. Instead, it should be 'sustained' debate before they begin using the technology.”

"The use of drones for covert surveillance is a highly sensitive issue. It is a new technology, untested in this area, and constantly improving in its capacity to record. These factors need to be recognised as something a democratic society debates, not just something that we are informed is happening to us."

Read more: Camley Cartoon on drones

Meanwhile, the Justice Secretary has said that the increase in the number of officers trained to use Tasers is not a “slippery slope” towards the universal arming of police, Michael Matheson told MSPs it was the government’s “clear intention” for Police Scotland to remain an unarmed police force with a specialist armed capability.