NeoConOpticon – new report on Europe’s ‘security research’ sector

25 September 2009. The NeoConOpticon report, released today by the Transnational Institute (TNI) and Statewatch, is probably the most significant independent assessment of  Europe’s emerging “security research” sector to date. It examines the development of the European Security Research Programme (ESRP), a €1.4 billion EU R&D budget line focused on surveillance and other law enforcement technologies.

Minimal democratic scrutiny

According to the report, there has been minimal democratic scrutiny of the programme and very little monitoring of its implementation. The design of ESRP has been outsourced to ad hoc EU groups comprised of government officials, security experts and companies selling homeland-security products.

“There is, of course, nothing new about governments consulting about policy, particularly at the EU level,” says report author Ben Hayes of Statewatch. “But while corporations have been embraced by the ESRP, parliaments and civil society have been largely excluded. The process has been wholly undemocratic.”

Potential for systematic violation of fundamental rights

The report notes that ESRP is promoting a range of technologies that could engender systematic violations of fundamental rights. These technologies include militarised border controls, surveillance and profiling technologies, the widespread collection and analysis of personal data, automated targeting systems, unmanned drone and satellite-based surveillance, and more.

While these high-tech systems do have positive uses such as environmental observation and traffic control, they also represent an unprecedented state intrusion into every sphere of daily life.

You’re never alone with a drone

One section of the report, for example, deals with Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) – or pilotless “drones”. At EU level, more than a dozen research projects and studies championing the development and implementation of UAV systems have been commissioned. This is despite a current ban on their use in European airspace, as well as an absence of public debate about the legitimacy or desirability of their use.

UAVs have become feared and hated across the Middle East, Pakistan and Afghanistan, where they are used for surveillance and targeted assassinations. Developed originally for the military, these drones are finding new uses in domestic or civilian applications.

The €20 million TALOS project, for example, will develop and field test “a mobile, modular, scalable, autonomous and adaptive system for protecting European borders” using both aerial and ground unmanned vehicles”. Apparently, these specially adapted combat robots “will undertake the proper measures to stop the illegal action almost autonomously with supervision of border guard officers”.

How drones would stop illegal action autonomously is open to debate. By firing chemical sprays from the sky perhaps, to drive people away from certain areas? In the same way as you would discourage some unwanted insects? How do you define the behaviour of the operators involved? Should they be labelled inhuman, or inhumane? Or just demonstrating a new type of push-button barbarity?

Data protection: pie in the sky

On satellite surveillance, the report notes that while there has been some serious debate about the privacy implications of satellite-surveillance capabilities in the USA, there has been precious little – if any – in the European Union. In the course of extensive research into EU-funded activities in this area, not one single project dealing with privacy or data protection in the EU’s sprawling satellite surveillance programme could be identified. Neither is there any concern for ‘data protection’ or privacy in the EU’s INSPIRE Directive (on an EU Infrastructure for Spatial information) or the INSPIRE implementing regulations.

Review of the programme needed

The report calls for a full audit of the development and implementation of the European Security Research Programme. It asks for a redefinition of the programme’s priorities to put human rights and social justice at its heart; reorganisation of the current governance structure to ensure independent scrutiny and democratic control of the ESRP; a freeze on EU surveillance-enabling legislation; and a programme of measures to bring law enforcement technology and related police powers under democratic and judicial control.

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For more information:

Transnational Institute (TNI): +31 20 662 6608
Nina Brenjo: +31 63 484 2129 (nina.brenjo@tni.org)
Ben Hayes: +44 20 8802 1882 (ben@statewatch.org)

© Philip Hunt 2009