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Security research ‘community of users’ marks new approach


BRUSSELS – On 5-6 December, security research policymakers and practitioners gathered for the latest meeting of the European Commission-sponsored “Community of Users (CoU) involved in EU-funded security research. The CoU seeks to unify the fragmented landscape of the research sector by encouraging collaboration between researchers, industry and practitioners such as emergency first-responders and border-control officers.

Andrea De Candido, deputy head of unit for security research at the Commission’s home affairs directorate-general (DG HOME), told the conference that 2018 “will be the next step of evolution. Our meetings – more thematic and more tailored to the users – will allow better exchanges of information” between researchers, practitioners and policymakers and thus a more tailored approach to a specific user’s needs. “Research cannot be seen as a stand-alone effort,” he said. “It only makes sense if it’s inserted into a broader picture of a capability-driven approach to security research.”

Connecting research with practitioners demands looking ahead, he said. “Some capability packages are directly tied to technologies that need to be available,” he said. “We are drawing line between what we have today and what we will have 10 years from now.”

CoU’s organisers always use the occasion to showcase the latest research results. Several ongoing projects presented their status reports and two stood out from the rest. The first, known as “Speaker Identification Integrated Project” (SiiP) uses a probabilistic voice-identification system to identify extremists in online videos and social media so that inflammatory content can be picked out and taken down.

To demonstrate the project’s technology, SiiP’s coordinator Gideon Hazzani, showed a video in which an Australia-based extremist’s voice was added into the system’s database. A ‘search’ feature sought and found a similar representation of the extremist’s voice on banned social media content that could then be removed, once the speaker’s identified was fully confirmed.

“It’s not evidence because it’s probabilistic,” Hazzani said. “But it can support evidence.”

The second research endeavour seeks to apply sophisticated computer gaming platforms to simulate real-life police encounters with terrorists. The AUGGMED project, which derives its acronym from “multi-agent counter terrorist training in mixed reality environments with automated serious game scenario generator”, aims to replace both table-top and live-training police exercises.

“Current training, especially desk-based exercises, have a lack of realism. They’re paper-based, and divorced from what happens in the real world,” said Jenny Rainbird, the project coordinator and senior project manager at BMT Group Ltd. “But live-training exercises are very expensive to organise, and they take police out of the field.”

AUGGMED’s solution is to provide the sort of advanced simulations that high-end computer gamers routinely enjoy. The project has three ‘modes’ meant to fit client budgets. In the first one, a trainee can experience a terrorist attack at an airport through his or her iPad or laptop, without additional gear. In the second mode, the trainee faces the same terrorist attack but while wearing a pair of virtual reality goggles. Civilians stand around as avatars, and the trainee issues commands for them to evacuate to exits, among other options. The third and most advanced mode is a ‘mixed reality’ simulation that combines the virtual reality of a 3-D headset with a small real-world training facility.

Christoph Castex, who works within De Candido’s unit at DG Home, offered some practical tips for those looking for security research grants. The euro totals involved are substantial. Between 2014 and 2020, he said, the Horizon 2020 research programme will hand out about EUR 1.7 billion. “We represent over 50 percent of the [civil security] public spending available in the European Union,” he said.

His advice to applicants: include security practitioners such as first responders in the consortium. Among other advantages, practitioner involvement enhances policy support, improves the market uptake of research projects, and increases innovation, according to Castex.

In addition, he said researchers should recruit practitioners early. “If you write a proposal or put together a consortium, don’t start out without practitioners and then try to add them at the end,” Castex said. “Evaluators aren’t stupid. They see it.”

Castex also noted that 2018 topics for research will include critical infrastructure protection, the fight against crime and terrorism, borders and external security, and radicalisation. All topics are grouped together in calls-for-proposals that include specific categories to be addressed, such as pathogen detection, and open ones with more subject flexibility. “The open sub-topic category is a great opportunity,” Castex said. “It’s entirely up for grabs.”

He urged interested researchers and practitioners to explode DG HOME’s ‘participant portal,’ at www.ec.europa.eu/research.

     THE UPSHOT: It’s good to see the Commission refining its effort to find the best approach to security research. And its research call topics are getting more specific and more carefully framed with each passing year. But the ultimate proof remains the market test. How many of these projects will lead to industry and practitioner uptake? How many have made their way to the private sector so far? And to what extent is the Community of Users unifying Europe’s security industry?
     The numbers backing these developments need to be collected, and publicised. Doing so would help determine where practitioner participation in projects is helping research by pushing it to application and where it isn’t. DG HOME says it’s working on such a tracking mechanism, hopefully to be up and running sometime in the spring of 2018. That will be a welcome dose of accountability not only for EU-funded security research and its administrators but also for national and regional public authorities and their practitioners.


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