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French cannot deploy drones to search for migrants because of privacy rules

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The French cannot deploy its squadron of drones to track migrants because of privacy laws, it emerged this weekend.

The French police’s efforts to search for migrants on the north France coast before they leave for the UK is being hampered by legal ruling that their use potentially breaches privacy.

They have been caught in the backwash of a ruling by France’s official privacy watchdog, known as CNIL, that found the French Government had been using drone cameras to enforce Coronavirus restrictions and for other law enforcement purposes "outside of any legal framework.”

Privacy activists feared that the drone monitoring could serve as a trial run for more-expansive surveillance programs. They mounted a legal action and secured a ruling by France's highest court in May to suspend the practices in Paris.

However, privacy groups said French authorities carried on despite the ruling, continuing to deploy drones at protests, leading to the ban on their use by the CNIL which applies nationally.

The move comes as Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, announced last week an extra £54 million for the French which included increasing the use of surveillance technology including drones.

The French Government and police are working to resolve the dispute amid concerns that it comes as record numbers are making crossings during the summer.
It is the latest problem to undermine drone searches. The French have consistently spurned British drone surveillance technology that could have a dramatic impact on spotting migrants and smugglers. It has been used in the UK to successfully identify and prosecute traffickers.

One such piece of kit is the Tekever AR5 fixed wing drone which can cruise at 60 mph at heights of hundreds of metres with cameras and radar, and is understood to have played a key role in helping track and arrest a Channel migrant trafficking gang.

It has been deployed by the coastguard alongside the Ministry of Defence’s Watchkeeper drone, which can reach 16,000ft with a range of 100 miles and was used by the Army in Afghanistan. But the French have been reluctant to deploy them in their airspace despite the size of the area they have to patrol.

“There has been a reluctance to accept technology from us. They didn’t want any of our surveillance capability. We have been trying to get them to accept a better surveillance capability,” said Tony Smith, former director general of Border Force.

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