Discussion Prompt: Are civil liberties and democratic accountability sufficiently incorporated into the priorities of surveillance research programs?

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In December 2020, the European Parliament called on the Commission to boost its security efforts: “to proactively plan for the research, development and deployment of new technologies for ensuring EU internal security”. The EU needs to keep up with technological developments to face accelerating security challenges. 

To achieve this, the EU bets on research and innovation to improve security policies, such as the Security Union Strategy

Developing valuable independent knowledge 

Since 2007, the EU has funded 655 projects through its civil security research programme

The projects bring together security practitioners: police authorities, firefighters, civil protection or border guards, with the best European researchers, SMEs, and industries, as well as with civil society organisations to develop knowledge, technologies, and solutions that will better protect EU citizens. 

With its own civil security research programme, the EU maintains independent knowledge in critical security domains, not having to rely on technologies developed by non-EU countries. 

Security research and innovation, funded by the EU, leads to new tools and knowledge for security practitioners. Among these are valuable applications, such as: 

  • automated border controls; 
  • identification of fraudulent documents; 
  • protection of digital identities; 
  • management tools for dealing with crisis, such as pandemics; 
  • response to natural disasters; 
  • common information sharing systems; 
  • infrastructure security systems; 
  • detectors of drugs and explosives;
  • or algorithms to find terrorist content online.

Respecting fundamental human rights 

EU-funded security research fully takes into account the protection of civil liberties and fundamental rights, including privacy. 

The democratic cycle of research programmes 

The democratic process of checks-and-balances carefully runs throughout the implementation of EU research Framework Programmes – the EU’s main financial tool to fund research projects. 

1. The European Parliament and the Council approve the legislation that sets up Framework Programmes. 

2. The Commission implements these research programmes fully responsible towards the Parliament and Council. 

Ethical checks of research projects 

Independent experts conduct an ethical screening, before the decision is taken to fund a project. Even if a project is suitable for funding, the grant agreement will include ethics provisions. In this respect, the breaching of ethical standards constitutes a breach of the grant agreement contract. 

During implementation, EU project officers monitor the respect of the above ethical obligations, and can call for further checks. The ethics review does not aim to create additional bureaucracy or hinder excellent scientific proposals. Rather, it places ethics as an indispensable element, which empowers researchers to act in line with EU values and fundamental rights. 

Public transparency of research data 

The public has guaranteed online access to: 

  • information about the project and its procedures, 
  • data collected, and 
  • final results of the research projects. 

However, limitations to public access are introduced when it is necessary to protect commercially sensitive information, or security sensitive information, that could put at risk the safety and security of citizens. As such, some results of security research dealing for example with: 

  • homemade explosives, 
  • cybersecurity of hospitals, 
  • dangerous biological pathogens, or 
  • developing technologies to track illegal goods 

cannot be fully publicised. However, the Commission promotes transparency to the maximum extent possible by making publicly available results that would not fall under these categories. 

Research does not lead to instant use 

Researching a topic or a method does not mean that the outcomes will end up being used. In many cases, research is needed to understand if a certain technology could be used within a certain context. For instance, it is important to understand possible malicious use of the technology being researched, so as to put in place mechanisms to regulate its use and applicability. All this is with the final aim to better protect European citizens in full compliance with European legislation, values, and respect for fundamental rights. 

Practicing caution: surveillance technologies 

The Commission is aware of the sensitive nature of security research. For instance, some of the funded projects include aspects related to surveillance: 

  • surveillance of air, land and sea borders; 
  • surveillance for the security of critical infrastructures; 
  • or surveillance and situational awareness to prevent and fight illegal activities. 

Surveillance itself is never the final aim of any EU-funded research activity. Rather, up to date information on the situation at Europe’s external borders or information on suspicious activity near an electricity power plant, can contribute to better awareness and preparedness to security challenges. 

Time to further involve civil society 

Building on the instruments to ensure ethical compliance of security research, the Commission also intends to further enhance the engagement of civil society in EU security research projects. This intention is a key objective under the new Framework Programme for Research and Innovation, Horizon Europe, which is currently being launched.