What is more important - safety or freedom? An EU-funded project is helping security forces get the balance right, with research on how to develop ethical counter-terrorism measures that respect citizens' rights.
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People rely on security services to protect them from terrorist attacks, while at the same time trusting them to preserve citizens’ basic rights under national and international law. The DETECTER project has shown how technology can be used to prevent terrorism without compromising Europe’s defining values.
The EU-funded project studied how the use of technology in counter-terrorism might impact rights such as freedom of association, freedom of speech and privacy. From this research, it drew up a framework to help manufacturers and public authorities protect rights, and promoted better dialogue between technology manufacturers, security forces and human rights specialists.
DETECTER focused on how countries can comply with their commitments under agreements such as the European Convention on Human Rights and Convention 108 on personal data, says project coordinator Tom Sorell, now at Warwick University, who was employed by the University of Birmingham at the time of the project.
To help clarify this concern, DETECTER compiled a list of technologies that could be useful for security services, such as physical scanning, explosives detection, CCTV, communications monitoring and analysis, and intelligence databases.
Researchers then analysed both the capabilities and the risks of these technologies, against a background of philosophical arguments against terrorism and in favour of liberal democracy. It also looked at the legal implications of diverse counter-terrorist policies across many jurisdictions. This was new in human rights research, says Sorell.
The project used its results to produce recommendations for authorities. These include: basing security measures on evidence, minimising their intrusiveness, only using these measures to prevent serious crimes, restricting actions but not expression and avoiding total concentrations of power.
As a concrete example of DETECTER’s approach, Sorell mentions the project team’s advice to governments that it is legal and ethical to use airport people-scanners as long as they produce stylised representations of people rather than detailed images.
As part of its research, DETECTER held six discussion days for technology developers, ethicists, police and human rights lawyers to debate the legal and ethical issues around diverse technologies.
These meetings helped developers immediately spot potential problems with a technology, while developing better understanding of the police’s needs and also ethical and legal issues raised by their products.
“The meetings helped pioneer change, which has de-polarised the field. We have quite frank comments now and dialogue is more realistic and better-informed.”
The EU project framework was extremely valuable, he adds, as it made academic and anti-terrorism networks available to the team, including leading researchers from Scandinavia and Canada.
He explains that a key strength of the project was its input from Martin Scheinin, first United Nations Special Rapporteur on the protection and promotion of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism.
DETECTER marked the start of EU thinking about the technological limits of anti-terror applications and has led to better-informed research on the subject, says Sorell. The project‘s research is now a reference point for new security-related projects and has to be taken into account in applications for EU funding for research on this area.
Continuing from DETECTER is the SURVEILLE project, which has extended the research to include surveillance and developed an ethical issues advisory service for technology companies.
“Both projects make clearer to all actors or agents involved what the issues are when surveillance technologies are to be introduced,” says Sorell. In particular, he sees potential for the research to produce advice for cities on their ethical duties when they acquire security responsibilities following devolution of powers to cities from the national level.
“Because of thinking done in DETECTER, there is better protection for human rights in Europe, using European and UN norms,” concludes Sorell.