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New security R&D project to focus on hard evidence of public perceptions about security, with a twist: to translate research results into action


BRUSSELS – A newly launched EU Security Research project claims that in three years’ time it will provide policy makers and technology producers with an innovative decision support system to better understand how issues of ‘trust’ and ‘concern’ shape public perceptions about the trade-off between security and privacy.

Co-funded by the European Commission as part of the Security Research theme of the EU’s wider Framework Research Programme (FP7), the EUR 3.23 million PACT (“Public perception of security and privacy: Assessing knowledge, Collecting evidence, Translating research into action”) project will be developed by a team of 11 partners. The latter are led by Italy’s Centre for Science, Society and Citizenship.

SECURITY EUROPE attended the project’s launch conference here during the latter half of June.

PACT aims to develop and validate an evidence-based ‘Privacy Reference Framework for Security Technology’, plus a decision support system to help end-users evaluate the pros and cons of specific security technology investments from a wider societal perspective. This will focus on trust and privacy aspects. The project will:

  • assess existing knowledge regarding the relations between security and privacy, and the role played by trust and concern
  • collect empirical evidence via a pan-European survey of public perceptions of the relation between privacy, fundamental rights and security
  • analyse the main factors that affect public assessment of the security and privacy implications of security technologies

According to PACT, its pan-European survey to map out public perceptions of the trade-offs between security, privacy and fundamental rights will be the first of its kind and will target all 27 EU member states. The aim is to get an average of 1000 responses per country. Aware of the risks of a low response rate for such open-ended questionnaires, one of the project partners – Dimitris Potoglou of the UK-based research institute RAND Europe – told SECURITY EUROPE that the consortium will approach “as many potential respondents as needed” in order to reach the 1000-per-country target.

PACT’s approach will be based on the assumption that security and privacy do not necessarily exclude each other but, to the contrary, can be pursued together. The project will seek to capitalise on ‘trust’ as an important variable associated with the perception of risk. The latter will then be analysed from two different angles: (1) privacy and liberty concerns, and (2) security concerns.

However, Marie-Ange Balbinot, a European Commission official and one of the conference’s panellists, warned the consortium that “legally speaking, a perfect balance between security and privacy is not feasible”. She advised the team to frame their research around the issue of proportionality. Christiane Bernard, head of the Security Unit at the EU’s Research Executive Agency, added that the issue of proportionality is an increasingly important one for the Commission, whether in ethical terms or technological requirements for privacy and data collection, storage and protection functions.

Bernard said that proposals received in response to the Security Research programme’s sixth and final annual call for proposals (CFP) – released on 10 July – will be assessed against a “societal checklist” to determine their proportionality. Should this prove efficient, she said the checklist is likely to be included in Horizon 2020, the EU’s next 2014-2020 general research budget.

To help consortia fulfil the requisite ethical oversight of their projects such as the collection and use of personal data, a Commission-funded project known as “Surveille” will, as of October 2012, offer free ethical assessments and advice on proposals prior to their submission. (For details, see related story on Surveille in this issue.)

 THE UPSHOT: Without a far larger budget, PACT’s goal of getting 1000 legitimate responses per country for anything beyond a simplistic yes/no response to questions is highly unrealistic, in our view. Eurostat, the European Commission’s statistical wing, regularly does this on various subjects with its 1000-respondents-per-country Eurobarometer surveys of public opinion – but at great effort, cost, time and coordination of field personnel stationed across all 27 EU countries.
Also, a plethora of past and on-going Security Research projects have already dealt with privacy-vs-security and public perceptions. These include:
* CIPS: standardised assessment of security perceptions at member states’ level
* INEX: analysis of ethical values regarding the security-vs-liberty debate
* SurPRISE: recently launched large-scale participatory assessment of criteria and factors that determine the acceptability of security technologies in Europe
* PRISMS: new project to analyse the trade-off model between privacy and security, and devise a strong evidence-based perspective for reconciling privacy and security, trust and concern.
PACT will have a hard time proving the added value of its research compared to these projects. Indeed, PRISMS’ mission and objectives are strikingly similar to those of PACT, both of which are funded from the same CFP.
On the surface, this appears to be – and probably is – a duplication of resources and effort. However, the privacy/liberty side to security is a highly sensitive one for the public and many parliaments, so it may be that the Commission deliberately re-funds this to visibly demonstrate its commitment to the issue. Otherwise, there is no reason beyond political correctness to explain why it keeps throwing money at the topic.

About Ramona Kundt

Ramona Kundt was deputy editor at SECURITY EUROPE from 2008-2012.

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