Charm offensive

News editor

There are times in life when a favour cannot – and should not – be refused.

This happened in May this year when a visitor from Minneapolis had a few hours to kill during a stop over in London.

A couple of years earlier I’d been to the welcoming mid-west state of Minnesota to attend a wedding and I swore at the time that every courtesy would be extended to any of the guests who found themselves in London.

This was no pie-eyed pledge made to charm my American hosts and on May 27 a friend from across the pond made her way from Heathrow Airport to Paddington railway station to be met by a slightly nervous but ultimately proud Brit who would do his best to show the visiteur temporaire the wonders of London.

Said guest had forwarded a list of sights she wanted to see and the scope of her observational ambitions had the kind of linearity that would make for a very easy afternoon. The forthcoming day out was given an added gloss when she let it be known that a visit to a traditional oak panelled pub would be welcomed too.

This would be a doddle and it started well.

Hyde Park had sprung to life, bringing out the joggers, skaters, nannies and walkers that had remained largely hidden during the extended winter. Buckingham Palace was a similar exercise in smiling tourists taking numerous photos in the Spring sunshine.

Her tick list got shorter and before long we were in the welcoming environs of the Lamb and Flag in Covent Garden.

Then things went awry.

I could hear it but didn’t want to acknowledge it. I hoped also that my guest hadn’t noticed it too, given the novelty of the experience she was enjoying.

‘Is that normal?’ she asked. Is what normal? I countered.

‘The chopper,’ she said, nodding skyward to the helicopter that had been in persistent hover for quite a while.

It was a Metropolitan Police helicopter being used by its crew to keep tabs on a demonstration we’d witnessed earlier in Trafalgar Square and the simple answer was yes, it isn’t unusual to see police helicopters hovering over the capital.

‘Does it bother you?’ she asked. The answer to that was no, but on the condition that the aircraft was being used legitimately in order to deliver tangible outcomes for the wider benefit of society.

‘Oh well, at least it isn’t an unmanned drone,’ she said, which led us away from vacation chatter and onto a wider discussion about unmanned systems – be they aerial, at sea or on the ground.

Her position was one of suspicion of unmanned, given the civilian deaths attributed to the use of such systems in Pakistan and the FBI’s use of which in the US.

Unmanned systems have been in existence for decades but war in Iraq and Afghanistan have brought them to the attention of the public, many of whom have good reason to fear their capabilities.

But is this fear really warranted? At the recent DSEi exhibition Kevin Macnish delivered a seminar that addressed the ethical issues that will help industry engage with a wider audience

Macnish, a teaching fellow and consultant at the Centre for Inter-Disciplinary Applied Ethics at Leeds University, pointed out that unmanned aerial systems (UAS) provide technological and economic benefits that make the use of helicopters redundant in certain situations.

UAS can be cheaper and far more versatile than a helicopter, potentially remaining in the air for days at a time depending on the platform. They can fly at altitudes that make them virtually invisible from the ground and they can be fitted with technology – for example high-resolution cameras and infra-red sensors to pick up heat signatures – that make them very attractive to the agencies of safety and security.

There are, in Macnish’s opinion, five key issues that must be addressed in order for the public to embrace the wider use of UAS: privacy, the so-called ‘chilling effect’, social discrimination, behavioural uniformity and disempowerment.

The chilling effect refers to a disinclination to use the right to protest if being observed persistently; behavioural uniformity takes the view that people are less likely to act conspicuously if the are being observed; disempowerment refers to the feeling of powerlessness in the face of state observation; and social discrimination looks at the potential to alienate certain communities if they are under surveillance. The latter was illustrated with the example of Project Champion, a camera surveillance operation in Birmingham that focussed on two areas of the city and was funded from the counter terror budget.

Questions surrounding ethics inevitably arise before the passing of laws and the state has the power to reassure the public through: requiring police forces, for example, to obtain a warrant before using UAS, imposing altitude ceilings, and limiting the length of time that a UAS can remain in the air for.

One would hope – assume even – that law will catch up with the issues currently being discussed. Bringing a technology from military into civilian use will stimulate a good deal of debate and the British public deserves reassurances, given that it lives almost permanently under the gaze of CCTV.