NORWAY: Police testing surveillance drones in Oslo

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In recent months the police in Oslo and the neighbouring police district Follo have been testing small, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) equipped with cameras, known more commonly as drones.

On 1 September this year people outside the Oslo City Hall saw a drone, controlled remotely by a police officer, circling over this widely-used public recreation area. This is one of a number of sightings of the police honing their drone piloting skills in public areas in which there is no situation that would make use of the technology necessary.

The Oslo police have just one helicopter, and there have been reports of frustration within the force that its use during events such as political demonstrations and visits of foreign leaders has prevented it being used for other purposes.

After criticism of the police response to Anders Behring Breivik's terror attacks on 22 July 2011, the government was pressed to rent another helicopter from England. On, the Norweigan police union's magazine, a number of frustrated police officers have aired criticisms of the capabilities of helicopters, and the magazine has written positively about drone tests.

Now it seems that there is a hope that drones can take over in situations where mass surveillance is deemed necessary, freeing the helicopter up and saving money at the same time.

A new police helicopter costs the equivalent of about two million pounds, while the surveillance drones used by the police cost about 30,000 pounds each. It is numbers like this that may lead Norwegian lawmakers to discard the tradition of strict legal protections against public surveillance.

The drone that has been tested by the Oslo and Follo police so far is the quad-rotor Huginn x1, produced by Danish firm Sky Watch. It weighs less than a kilogram without any additional sensors mounted, is 50 centimetres in diameter, can fly for up to 25 minutes on one battery and reach an altitude of 150 metres.

Norwegian privacy laws are clear that CCTV and other forms of technical surveillance equipment should be officially registered and the spaces in which they are used marked with signs, but the law is seldom enforced. [1]

In using surveillance drones the police are able to make use of exceptions to this law that permit the use of police helicopters and other aerial vehicles which use video surveillance as a part of their operational activities and for information-gathering.

Using drones to observe and collect data is easier, faster and cheaper than using helicopters, and currently the police do not need a specific warrant from a court to undertake this surveillance, as long as it is a part of "daily" police work.

So far the Norwegian Civil Aviation Authority has been more worried about the potential consequences of drones than Norwegian lawmakers.

Fremskrittspartiet (The Progress Party), a populist right-wing party that is now part of the newly-elected conservative government is strong supporter of increased police use of surveillance equipment, including drones. The central National Police Directorate that heads the Norwegian police has said that drone technology has now reached such a quality that the police should consider using them.

After Breivik's attack on the Government Building in Oslo and the killing of 69 people at the Labour Party's summer youth camp at Utøya at July 22, 2011, there have been frequent calls and greater public support for increased surveillance in Norwegian society.

The government-appointed July 22 Commission that probed the emergency response to the terror attack levelled harsh criticism against the police, politicians and the government for failing to implement better security measures that might have warded off the attacks or improved the reaction to them.

One conclusion reached by the Commission was the need for technological upgrades of and additions to police equipment. Another was increased surveillance of higher quality. A situation seems to have arisen in which it may be far easier to soften restrictions on police activity, because of the great frustration after the July 22 terror attacks.

Further reading

  • SPAIN: Field testing: CLOSEYE project puts drones over the Mediterranean, Statewatch News Online, 10 May 2013
  • GERMANY: States and corporations from Europe and beyond gather to discuss "police in social networks", "ePolice" and "equipment and armament", Statewatch News Online, 14 February 2013
  • EU: European police step up cooperation on technological research and development, Statewatch News Online, 26 November 2012
  • EU: Commission wants drones flying in European skies by 2016, Statewatch News Online, 14 September 2012

    [1] Datatilsynet, Kameraovervaking - hva er lov?, 1 June 2012

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