Canada's national police force, the RCMP, has doubled its usage of drones since 2015, internal flight records show.
The force went from a total of 769 flights logged in 2015 to 1,611 flights in 2018, the RCMP told VICE.
As drone use by police forces have increased in a number of jurisdictions over the past few years, privacy advocates say the RCMP's secrecy around their policies and their delay in following privacy disclosures is concerning.
The 229 drones—equipped with video cameras, infrared cameras and thermal imaging devices—in the RCMP fleet fly across all provinces and territories except Nunavut. The program initially started in 2010 as a tool for “collision reconstruction” but later expanded and “advanced RCMP operations” in areas including surveillance, crime scene investigation, and what it calls “monitoring critical incidents, " according to an RCMP document.
The drones can fly for up to 20 minutes before needing to return to swap batteries and video data stored on SD cards, RCMP spokesperson Cpl. Caroline Duval wrote in an email.
According to the RCMP’s internal flight logs, 57 percent of flights fall into a category the RCMP calls “Training/Practice/Research," such as testing drones for potential usefulness in various programs. Fifteen percent of flights are attributed to “collision investigations,” followed by 12 percent in “major crime scene/forensic scene processing."
While the RCMP says there are no recorded uses of flights for surveillance, privacy advocates are concerned that such activity could fit into other broad categories such as event planning, site surveys, or research. The RCMP said the categories have no “prescriptive” definitions and does not provide internal policies.
The spike in drone usage is concerning, said Micheal Vonn, policy director at the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association.
“Six out of 10 flights continuing to train, practice, and research on a nine-year-old program," said Vonn. "It invites concern about what is going on in the research category.”
The public has only recently gotten its first glimpses of these categories nearly 10 years after the program launched when the RCMP released a "privacy impact assessment" summary in March.
In the assessment, the RCMP emphasizes that it does not use drones to perform widespread surveillance under “normal circumstances" and obtains a warrant except when “urgent or exigent circumstances” make it impractical to do so.
Despite this explicit reference in the impact summary, Cpl. Duval said there have been no recorded uses of surveillance by drone with or without a warrant in the program’s near decade of existence.
The careful separation of surveillance from other categories is with good reason, says Vonn.
“The RCMP, like the rest of the country, knows full well what the public’s concern is with the drones. It’s surveillance of protesters, surveillance of speech activity, surveillance of public gatherings in ways that would be problematic,” said Vonn.
Other jurisdictions internationally have taken steps to address the use of police drones.
While drone usage in police forces have been increasing steadily in the U.S., California took the step of requiring warrants for all police drone flights except for emergencies, including fires and a hostage-taking in 2014.
In England, London's Metropolitan police just became the first force in the UK to deploy drones to monitor dangerous drivers in the city's 20 boroughs.
In Canada, privacy impact assessments are required when a program implemented by government agencies may have repercussions on Canadians’ privacy. The reports are kept confidential but summaries of them are made public—often the first chance the public has to learn of new police technologies.
According to Vonn, the agency referred to the drone program as a pilot program for years. This seems to have allowed the RCMP to claim it was not fully implemented and delay the assessment for nearly a decade while drones were used in operations.
No flight logs exist at all for the first five years of the program.
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