Police Scotland has only deployed its drones to search for missing people after the Scottish Police Authority (SPA) raised alarm about their wider use for operations such as public disorder.
The authority had been surprised to learn officers were using the three remotely piloted aircraft systems (Rpas) in far more tasks than their original main purpose of missing persons.
Deployments have included tracking a large gathering of drunken youths on Troon beach, and Greenpeace protesters occupying an oil rig in the Cromarty Firth.
Since being introduced in 2019, the drones have also been used in murder investigations, drugs operations, and after fatal industrial accidents, crashes and fires, including the Carmont train crash last August.
However, police have said they were not used for surveillance activities.
The SPA raised concerns with one of Police Scotland’s most senior officers after learning of the wider deployment in the force’s assessment of its drone use in November.
The authority said: “Members were not satisfied with the extent of the evaluation report and were concerned by the reported wider use of Rpas within it.
“Martyn Evans, as chair of the [policing performance] committee, escalated these concerns and spoke directly with Deputy Chief Constable Malcolm Graham.
“As a result, it was agreed that Police Scotland would immediately limit the use of Rpas to searching for missing persons, unless a deployment was identified as operationally critical and authorised by a senior officer.”
The SPA said the force had also agreed to submit a revised report in March that would “cover issues in regard to privacy, human rights and other ethical issues”.
Police Scotland said: “Given recent engagement with the SPA and the recognition of concerns about deployment criteria and privacy/transparency implications, further consideration has been given to the operating model.
“For the time being, and until further work to reassure the SPA is concluded, Rpas deployments will still take place for missing person searches, but will be subject to additional governance and scrutiny for any other public safety or threat to life incidents.
“This discretion will allow Police Scotland senior officers a reasonable and proportionate public interest test in Rpas deployment, should it be deemed essential.
“To date, there have been no Rpas deployments other than for missing person investigations since this policy was changed.”
Scottish Liberal Democrat justice spokesperson Liam McArthur said: “The deployment of drones by Police Scotland is a new frontier and one that needs to be carefully monitored.
“New technological developments can be an important tool in maintaining community safety, but Police Scotland also need to be transparent with the public about how this new technology is being used.
“Under the present circumstances it makes sense to limit their deployment and ensure this technology is being put to use with the appropriate safeguards.”
Liam Kerr, his Scottish Conservatives counterpart, said: “It is entirely proper for scrutiny to be given to the police’s use of any new technology, which may have an impact on privacy, human rights and other ethical issues.
“It should therefore reassure the public that these concerns are being examined in detail by senior officers, regulators and MSPs.”
Scottish Labour justice spokesperson Rhoda Grant said: “Police Scotland need to be aware of concerns from the public when rolling out new technology.”
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