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Security RTD consortia to benefit from new ethical support services


BRUSSELS – The ethical review of EU-funded projects tends to fall especially heavily on Security Research (SR) projects, an obligation that can be very time-consuming. A new service, however, will provide free expert advice to SR consortia on ethical implications of their project’s R&D or technology.

The service in question is an auxiliary activity of the new SR project known as Surveille —“Surveillance: Ethical Issues, Legal Limitations, and Efficiency”. Launched in January 2012, the three-year project has a total budget of EUR 4.4 million, of which the EU contributed EUR 3.4 million.

Surveille’s goal is to systematically evaluate current surveillance technologies from an ethical perspective, and to produce corresponding “deployment” advice for end-users and industry. The project is a successor to the SR project known as DETECTER, which ran during 2008-2012.

As part of project, Surveille’s consortium is preparing to launch its “Surveille Ethics Advisory Service”, which will be run by the UK’s Birmingham University. SECURITY EUROPE spoke with Prof. Tom Sorell, research leader of the forthcoming service, to find out more about the intended benefits.

“The Advisory Service is meant to help FP7 consortia and private companies to think about some of the specific ethical issues which run routinely from new technology developments”, Sorell said. “The point is for technology developers to present things they are working on early in their research, to get reactions on the ethical implications.”

The service will offer a range of consultation methods, from a telephone conference call to written reports based on submitted material. Ideally, such a review will serve as a “sanity check” for not-yet submitted Security Research project proposals by allowing Surveille experts to overview the project for potential ethical issues. However, in theory the service is also willing to overview a project or technology development at any stage in the process, including after it has already begun its work.

In addition, the service will be limited to RTD (research and technological development) projects with surveillance aspects. “We are willing to give advice on security technology generally,” Sorell explained. “We have experts with experience advising projects on everything from disaster response to critical infrastructure protection ethics, so we can run the whole gamut.” According to Sorell, this includes advice and recommendations on issues including human rights, privacy, dual-use technology issues and potential technology mis-use or abuse.

However, the point is not to chastise projects which may show flawed ethical reviews, but to help them correct methodology before they run into problems. “The Advisory Service is an attempt to produce an atmosphere of cooperation so that researchers view ethics as being integrated to their work, and not an impediment,” he said.

Perhaps more interestingly, Surveille could be viewed as a test case for a longer-term ethical support mechanism for Security Research consortia in the future. “I think the Commission is interested in seeing whether this could be made more permanent”, Sorell confided. “We are something of a pilot in the field, and we’ll be evaluating stakeholder feedback on the service as we go.”

The Surveille Ethics Advisory Service will begin accepting requests for reviews as from October 2012. Interested technology developers or research consortia can find out more at: http://surveilleadvisoryservice.eu/

     THE UPSHOT: This new service is a useful one. Though rare, some FP7 Security Research consortia have previously had their work halted – and budgets frozen – due to unexpected ethical review problems. If a consultation with Surveille can highlight potential problems before such a disaster, then it will prove a valuable contribution to the European research community.
The question mark over the service is one of capacity. Until the concept is up and running, it is unknown how many requests for review the service could receive. Sorell’s team currently has four permanent experts on stand-by, so it will be interesting to see if this is enough to handle the workload. Demand for Surveille’s services could provide the metrics the Commission would need if it wanted to put the concept on a permanent footing.

About Jonathan Dowdall

Jonathan Dowdall was policy analyst for SECURITY EUROPE from 2011-2012 and now works for the UK government. He can be reached at: jonathandowdall@googlemail.com

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