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'Positively chilling' says Liberty

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Radical Think Tank Open Europe has this week exposed a study by the EU that could lead to the creation of a massive cross-Europe database, amassing vast amounts of personal data on every single citizen in the EU.

The scope of this project also reveals a growing governmental preference for systems capable of locking people up not for what they have done, but for what they might do.

Open Europe (OE) researcher, Stephen Booth, has been reviewing projects currently in receipt of EU funding. Last week he identified one of these - Project INDECT - as having potentially far-reaching effects for anyone living or working in Europe. The main objectives of this project, according to its own website, are:

To develop a platform for: the registration and exchange of operational data, acquisition of multimedia content, intelligent processing of all information and automatic detection of threats and recognition of abnormal behaviour or violence, to develop the prototype of an integrated, network-centric system supporting the operational activities of police officers.

In addition, it aims "to develop a set of techniques supporting surveillance of internet resources, analysis of the acquired information, and detection of criminal activities and threats."

There are two controversial aspects to this research. First is the extent of data collection implied by the project scope. Second, and perhaps far more worrying, is the proposition that law enforcement agencies, in possession of sufficient data, will in future be able to model potentially criminal and anti-social behaviour and therefore focus on individuals before crimes are committed.

In this, it echoes another EU-sponsored piece of research – ADABTS – which is all about Automatic Detection of Abnormal Behaviour and Threats in crowded Spaces. According to the ADABTS prospectus, it "aims to develop models for abnormal and threat behaviours and algorithms for automatic detection of such behaviours as well as deviations from normal behaviour in surveillance data."

The INDECT project is co-ordinated by Polish academic Professor Andrzej Dziech. Participants include several institutions from Poland - which until recently had its own issues with over-arching state surveillance - as well as the Northern Ireland Police Service.

Shami Chakrabarti, the director of human rights group Liberty, described this approach as a "sinister step" for any country, but "positively chilling" on a European scale.

Stephen Booth added: "The problem with the EU funding these types of projects is the lack of accountability. Citizens are left completely in the dark as to who has approved them and there is no way to ensure that civil liberties are being duly respected.

"The absence of any political debate about the use of these new surveillance technologies in our society is a very dangerous trend, which is especially acute at the EU level."

However, the idea of punishing potential criminals is not just an EU notion. As El Reg reported last year, the Home Office has certainly considered the use of automated profiling to check travellers at points of entry to the UK. This has been controversial, both because of the veiled racism implied by such a policy, as well as evidence provided to the Home Office that it might not actually work.

However, the Vetting Database - which is due to go live later this year - will take decisions on whether people are fit to work in millions of "regulated" positions on the basis of a scoring system, designed to "predict" likelihood to offend.

The introduction of predictive models into society appears to be carrying on apace, with very little public debate as to how desirable they are, or how the state should compensate citizens where mistakes occur. There is also a blurring of the lines between predicting a threat – in which case law enforcement officers can be asked to investigate – and simply predicting criminality and penalising an individual on the basis of something they have not yet done.

OE is interested in seeing less formal integration across Europe, and a return to more issues being resolved at the national level. Their investigation looked at funding provided under the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7). This can be accessed via the Cordis portal, and is a mechanism whereby funds controlled by the EU Commission are made available for research projects.

The existence of an FP7 project is not necessarily an indicator of EU policy in an area, but it is clear evidence of some interest in the approach being investigated.

Project INDECT launched on 1 January this year with a project budget of 14.86 million Euros. It is due to deliver the goods, including a 15-node pilot project, by the end of 2013. ®

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