Drone filmed me at Hong Kong democracy protest in Edinburgh. Innocent or a sinister sign our human rights are in peril? – Christine Jardine MP

As I was speaking I became aware of an almost imperceptible, but constant, humming above my head. Then I caught something moving out of the corner of my eye.

The use of drones and other forms of technology to monitor the public raise serious questions about human rights (Picture: Petros Karadjias/AP)
The use of drones and other forms of technology to monitor the public raise serious questions about human rights (Picture: Petros Karadjias/AP)

A drone. Hovering a couple of feet above the heads of the group was a small grey machine, the single eye of its mounted camera recording the event and everyone there.

This was, it is important to stress, a Covid-compliant, socially distanced, perfectly legal outdoor gathering of a small number of people in Edinburgh’s High Street. Unremarkable even in these times, save for one thing. It was about the threat to democracy in Hong Kong

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Someone, I still don’t know who, was filming us. Very carefully recording every aspect. Every person. Every face. I stood for a moment and looked it right in its electronic eye as it tilted up and down, scanning what I looked like in detail.

In that moment I cherished my civil liberties and protection in a more real way than I have ever felt. I have the right to stand in the sunshine, in my city and speak my mind.

Not because I am an elected representative or have some sort of official sanction or permission from the government. It is simply my right. Everyone’s right.

The drone may have been innocent. Someone trying out a new toy, perhaps.

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But its snooping around and the discomfort it caused me, sent me away thinking about whether democracy could be undermined in ways that we are not even conscious of.

I do not mean anything happening in Hong Kong, Myanmar or any place where we see overt and forceful action to undermine civil liberties.

I mean in this country, where we wear our civil rights and liberties very lightly. We take for granted that we will always have the freedom to march about everything from Pride to reclaiming the streets for women.

That protests like those which achieved universal suffrage, highlighted apartheid abuses and made clear public opposition to the war in Iraq will always be part of our democratic make-up.

But can we be so sure?

For more than a year now we have, for the most part willingly, accepted necessary restrictions on our freedom.

We also trusted the government when it said it needed temporary emergency powers, just in case.

But if we are to emerge from this crisis as the same people, with the same rights, we do have to be careful that we do not allow them to be undermined gradually, almost unnoticed, or by accident.

It may no longer be enough simply to assert that freedom of expression, of peaceful assembly and of association with others are fundamental human rights, protected by the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and our own Human Rights Act. An act which is currently the subject of a UK government “review”. A word which gives me no sense of security about its outcome.

It is supposed to lead to improvement. Betterment. But what is better to one person is not necessarily so to another.

Officially it seeks to assess whether the act “strikes the correct balance between the roles of the courts, the government and Parliament”.

You can, however, see where that gives rise to concern that it could give the government the power to pick and choose which aspects of the ECHR they adhere to.

And why now? Has the pandemic has been a helpful distraction?

It is perhaps time to ask if we are confident that both of our governments are committed to human rights at home, despite demanding them abroad?

There is a bill currently going through Westminster – the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill – which would grant police the right to limit protests.

They could control the length of protests, impose noise levels and prosecute anyone for the alarmingly ill-defined crime of causing “serious annoyance”. And those powers could be applied either to demonstrations or to individuals.

The appalling scenes at the Sarah Everard vigil on Clapham Common in March clearly demonstrated what can go wrong if people feel their rights are being infringed by policing.

And just because that bill is going through Westminster does not mean that there is only a danger in England. It sets a tone.

Also, the centralisation of Scottish Police forces under the SNP deprived us of local democratic accountability, and coincided with an increase in suspicion-less stop-and-search in Scotland.

Only huge public pressure forced the SNP government to backtrack on plans for a large-scale identity database that would have been ripe for abuses and invasions of privacy.

Then there is the thorny issue of that drone and the potential for facial recognition technology.

Just last year Scotland’s justice committee on policing found that live facial recognition technology is not fit for purpose. It concluded that it is inaccurate, discriminatory, ineffective, and a departure from the fundamental principle of policing by consent.

But that is for now and we know that there are serious concerns that, while UK police may not deploy it, we may not be able to prevent its use entirely, even in this country.

Thinking back to that unidentified drone, fascinated by a group of mostly Hong Kongers on the streets of Edinburgh I am reassured that everyone remained masked at all times.

I am confident that we will cherish and guard the rights that we have inherited in the UK.

But I can’t help wonder if someone, somewhere is currently running the footage it took through facial recognition technology just in case I might be a person they may wish to keep an eye on.

Christine Jardine is the Scottish Liberal Democrat MP for Edinburgh West

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