Drone spies are crossing a red line

Monday 18 April 2016

How would you react if you were sitting in your back garden on a sunny day and someone appeared overhead in a gyrocopter and hovered directly above you, staring balefully down.

Pretty uncomfortable, I reckon. Probably even a bit threatened. Why were they spying on you? Who were they? And now imagine how you’d feel if they whipped out a camera and started taking pictures of you.

Well that’s pretty much the kind of bizarre experience I had this week. Of course Judy and I are used to being photographed by the paparazzi. And the market for their work grows.

Low-rent supermarket women’s magazines like nothing better than slapping a long-lens shot of TV presenters or actors on the front cover, usually caught in a microsecond of unconscious facial gurning to make them look miserable/angry/demented, accompanied with grotesquely misleading headlines.

A recent one showed me and the missus, photos carefully cropped and selected to make me look homicidal – I was probably about to sneeze – and Judy appear terrified. The headline above it screamed: “JUDY: ‘You have to stop beating me, Richard!’”

The story inside ran a quote disinterred from some long-ago newspaper interview. Judy was explaining that she and I no longer play board games with each other at Christmas because I’m so competitive and try to win at all costs. I have to stop beating her. Geddit?

But this week a red line was crossed. I was in our garden in Cornwall on Tuesday lunchtime. The sun was out and I was wearing only a pair of fairly ridiculous surfer shorts. No risk of frightening the horses; the nearest public road is 50 yards away and our sunken patio is completely hidden.

I was cutting my toenails. One of those things we all do in private, right? Except I wasn’t. In private, that is. An insistent high-pitched buzzing noise started coming from above. At first I thought it was an insect. But when I glanced up, I could see it was much peskier than a wasp or a hornet.

It was a drone. Shiny white, four propellers spinning away, the whole thing barely the size of a Frisbee. It was hovering about 50 feet over my head, completely stationary. Taking photos. Eye in the sky.

Not quite the drone warfare depicted in Helen Mirren’s latest movie of the same name but deeply disconcerting all the same. At first I was tempted to shoot the thing down with my air rifle. It would have been an easy shot. But the words “criminal damage” whispered to me. Did I have the legal right?

Then I realised whoever was operating the drone must be in line of sight of it so was probably lurking out on the lane. The moment I jumped into my car the machine sank rapidly back towards the road.

When I got there, a 50-ish bloke was hastily stuffing something under the driver’s seat of his battered white van while a much younger guy in the passenger seat nervously watched. He slammed the door and despite me hammering on the side of the van, shouting at him to stop, he roared off.

But I got his number and immediately tweeted it to my 206,000 followers, asking if they could help identify the “creeps” and “Peeping Toms” while I called police.

This must have put the fear of God into them because later that day an officer came to the house and said that within five minutes of my outing them they’d turned themselves in by phone to Devon and Cornwall Police, babbling lame excuses and apologies and promising not to do it again.

They’d better not. Police have opened a file on them. If they’re caught spying on anyone who’s on their own private property again, they’ll be nicked. Result. But they’re still creeps.

Read more in Richard and Judy's column for the Daily Express here.
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