What security technologies for Europe?

The “Security” thematic area in the 7th Research Framework Programme aims to develop technologies which will parry the multiple threats to an open-frontier Europe, while continuing to respect fundamental freedoms.

“Technology itself cannot guarantee security, but security without the support of technology is impossible”, we read in the report(1) of the Group of Personalities (GoP), a panel mandated by the European Council in 2003 to define a European strategy for the development of securities technologies. Terrorism, organised crime, extremism, catastrophes of natural or human origin - the list of threats weighing on a global village where crises and conflicts are exported as rapidly as goods is very long.

This explains why the 7th Framework Programme (FP7) includes a thematic area specifically dedicated to security. Nor has the Union skimped on resources. A budget of €1.4 billion over seven years, or almost 5% of the total budget, is devoted to this area. Research is focused around four concepts: improving citizen security, strengthening infrastructure security, border monitoring and crisis management. Grafted on top of these are three horizontal themes: interoperability and interconnection of security systems between Member States; exploration of the complex relationships between security and society; and coordination of European research efforts in this field. Four years of preparatory work, supporting some 30 projects, preceded the introduction of the “Security” portfolio, in an area the size and complexity of which raises many challenges, as much for the exact sciences as for human sciences.

A large market

Hitting two birds with one stone seems to be the main direction of European research strategy for security. Managing the risks of democracies has been coupled with a second objective of stimulating the growth of European industries. Because competition is rude in the global security market, estimated to be worth a juicy €250 - 350 billion, and growing by 10% a year. “The United States represents almost 50% of this market, Europe just under a third. And of the 50 largest players in this field, more than half are American”, Laurent Collet-Billion, delegate-general for armaments at the French Ministry of Defence, told the European Security Research Conference (SRC ’08) which brought together in October 2008 many of the players involved, mostly from industry.

But that is not all. Given the need for scale economies, European security strategy also aims to increase links between the defence and security markets. “Many industrialists, research institutes and SMEs which are developing security technology are also developing defence technology. In the current situation of economic warfare, we need European champions able to take their place on the world market. The major defence industries will also be the major security industries”, Laurent Collet-Billion was keen to stress.

In any event, the EU’s “Security” portfolio is resolutely turned towards industry, which is not only taking part in many European projects, but is also heavily involved in defining and managing this technology development strategy. Eight of the 25 members of the GoP came from Europe’s largest weapons companies. Some 30% of the members of the European Security Research Advisory Board (ESRAB), a permanent committee set up by the Commission in 2005, are from the private sector. At the end of 2008, the European Security Research and Innovation Forum (ESRIF) was created to promote discussion between the public and private sectors across the whole area of research into civil security.

Technologies need not only to be competitive, but also to meet the needs of the security services of the 27 Member States with their far from homogenous legislative frameworks and operating modes. In short, this is a market that is at once highly fragmented and of great strategic importance, a fact that justifies the “Security” portfolio being headed by the Commission’s Directorate-General (DG) for Enterprise and Industry rather than by DG Research.

Certain people are expressing concern at the overly liberal approach towards security. “The Americans also dominate the world when it comes to the development of GMOs, offering a competitive advantage to their multinationals. But does this require the European Union to set up its own GMO research programme?”, asks Ben Hayes, a specialist in European internal security and the author of a study on the European security research programme(2). “Everyone, or almost everyone signs up to the idea of limiting the global proliferation of arms and instruments of repression and destruction. Security research raises exactly the same concerns, but we are being asked to accept the postulate of a supposed military-civil continuum which states that the weapons industry is the best placed for supplying security technologies.”

Is freedom “negotiable”?

While it cannot be denied that the fight against terrorism and insecurity in general is generally popular with the public, in particular since 2001, several security tools – file-creating, surveillance and detection tools – raise a considerable body of dissent within civil society. “Citizens are giving us contradictory messages in European and national surveys. They want the police to be able to easily track and recover their cars when stolen. But they want their privacy when travelling day by day to be strictly preserved. They want their medical records be available to doctors in the case of an accident, but otherwise kept strictly confidential. They expect airplane boarding controls be effective and very rapid, but respectful of their persons”, Jacques Barrot, European Commissioner for Justice, Freedom and Security, said to the SRC ’08 meeting. “Our citizens want to live in security and freedom. They want their rights to be strictly respected. They want to safeguard democracy. And with good reason. It is our job , politicians and public service professionals, to find the solutions to the best of our ability, but this also includes you, researchers and economic players.”

The Commission is not unaware of the human issues involved in the strengthening of security and pursuing an approach that is respectful of fundamental rights. “Security measures that fail to respect civil liberties would risk being shunned by citizens, with a concomitant degradation of security conditions”, outgoing ESRIF president Gijs de Vries insisted in his address to the SRC ’08. For this reason the ‘Security’ strand of the FP7 is also subsidising several projects that assess the best way of balancing security technologies and individual freedoms.

Will this approach guarantee a fair balance between security and freedom? “This aspiration is dangerous, as it reduces freedom, the founding principle of the democratic regime, to one simple and negotiable right among others”, argues Anastassia Tsoukala, a criminologist from Université Paris XI (FR). She is involved in the European project Challenge (3), which since 2004 has been studying the relationship between freedom, security and defence with a view to coming up with a coherent European strategy in this field. For Ben Hayes, technological solutions fail to get to the root of the problem. “There is no doubt that technology can help police enquiries. But there is nothing to prove that it can prevent terrorism or crime, as it can do nothing to respond to the protean-shaped causes behind these social problems.”

Are we on the path to greater surveillance and greater suspicion or are we opening the gates to new and effective technologies that are also respectful of freedoms? For Frank Gregory, a specialist in European security at the University of Southampton (UK), this latter option is achievable, but calls for “open discussion on the finality of implanted devices and a precise assessment of their added value in terms of security.”

François Rebufat, Julie Van Rossom

  1. «Research for a secure Europe – Report of the GoP in the field of security research», March 2004,
  2. Ben Hayes, «Arming Big Brother – The EU security research program», Transnational Institute & Statewatch, April 2006,
  3. Challenge,