Sunday

26th May 2019

Opinion

A chance to change EU security research policy for the better

  • Research projects have included biometric capture and identification technologies. (Photo: The U.S. Army)

By 2020, the European Union will have invested over €3 billion in the European security research programme, which is supposed to develop “innovative technologies and solutions that address security gaps and lead to a reduction in the risk from security threats.”

In practice, the programme has been dominated by corporations and major national research institutes who seem intent on introducing a surveillance society in the name of public security.

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This is a particularly worrying prospect in a Europe where increasingly illiberal governments have used emergency situations to ensure “exceptional and temporary powers [are] permanently embedded in ordinary criminal law.”

Research projects have included multi-million-euro investigations into border control robots and drones, biometric capture and identification technologies, new data-mining and predictive analysis systems for the police, all manner of remote sensing equipment to discover drugs, explosives, concealed people or goods, and even ways to transform public institutions to make them more accepting of new security “innovations”.

By December 2016, some €1.9 billion of the security research budget had been spent through the 2007-13 Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) and its successor, Horizon 2020. The biggest recipients have been some of Europe’s major security, defence and technology corporations.

Amongst them are Thales (€33m in public funding), Selex (€23.2m), Airbus (€17.8m), Indra (€12.3m) and Atos (€7.6m); and research institutes such as Germany’s Fraunhofer (€66m), Netherlands-based TNO (€33.6m), the Swedish Defence Research Institute (€33.5m) and France’s Commissariat à l'énergie atomique et aux énergies alternatives (over €22m).

Agenda-setting

Many of these organisations have held or do hold seats on the European Commission’s ‘Protection and Security Advisory Group’ (PASAG), the agenda-setting advisory panel that draws up security research work programmes, on which the influence of corporate and other interest groups has been marked.

Thus, the Commission’s recent appointment of a former official from the arms industry lobby group ASD to the group, to increase “industry representation”, seems somewhat absurd to long-term observers of EU security policy.

The security research programme was established in 2005 at the behest of a "group of personalities", featuring EU and member state officials alongside representatives from arms and technology companies.

These "personalities" were hoping to ride the "homeland security" wave that had arisen in Israel and the USA following the end of the Cold War, with subsequent development shaped by further proposals from informal public-private groups, the work of the PASAG, and industry lobbying.

A 2012 European Commission paper said it loud and clear: "A competitive EU security industry is the conditio sine qua non of any viable European security policy and for economic growth in general."

Yet, while the Commission has long been enthusiastic about the corporate contribution to security policy, democracy and transparency have been somewhat lower on the EU’s list of priorities - something well-demonstrated by a host of new security systems introduced in recent years.

For example, the development of national Passenger Name Record (PNR) systems for air passenger surveillance and profiling were helped along with at least €50 million by the Commission, years before an EU directive was finally agreed in April 2016.

Corporate benefits

The PNR directive will face serious questioning following a recent negative European Court of Justice opinion on the proposed EU-Canada PNR agreement, and politicians in favour of the directive will no doubt intervene, citing its necessity for fighting crime and terrorism - but the potential profits for their favoured corporations may also play a role.

The Eurosur border surveillance system was in development for at least five years before legislation was approved in 2013, with numerous EU research projects helping put the pieces in place before Portuguese firm GMV won the multi-million-euro maintenance contract.

The forthcoming “smart borders” project, aiming to automate border controls and introduce biometric registration for all non-EU citizens, has followed a similar path - research projects helped develop the technology, but the legislation is only just coming up for adoption.

New technologies can undoubtedly make a significant contribution to empowering individuals and democratising societies - but when publicly-funded research and development is driven by profit-hungry corporations offering frightening possibilities to authoritarian-minded governments, the processes at work must be seriously questioned.

In this respect it is a sad reflection that, so far, the greatest constraint on the development of the new homeland security seems to have been bureaucratic inefficiency and projects’ impracticality.

For instance, the European Court of Auditors found that national implementation of the External Borders Fund was seriously deficient, while the formal evaluation of the 2007-13 security research programme found that very few of the projects looked likely to result in concrete outputs.

Over the next two-and-a-half years, the priorities and functioning of the EU’s budgets for security policy and research will be up for debate as the EU institutions head towards establishing new budgets from 2020 onwards - offering a significant opportunity to prioritise human rights, democracy, transparency and equality.

In July 2017, a wide variety of civil society organisations published an initial position paper on future EU research policy, demanding that the security theme “institutes a meaningful balance between innovative security technologies on the one hand and research into fundamental rights, alternatives and root causes on the other.”

This is a good start, but coordinated efforts amongst civil society and progressive politicians - not to mention significant public pressure - will be required to ensure that the EU’s security policy stops prioritising corporate domination and technological determinism.

Chris Jones is a researcher for Statewatch, a civil liberties charity based in the UK, where he has worked since 2010. His work examines policing, migration, military and security issues in the UK and EU.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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