The Flemish Peace Institute is an independent
institute for peace research at the Flemish Parliament.

Security technology is not without risks for human rights


On 22 February 2013 the Flemish Peace Institute published a report about security technology. The development and production of scanners, unmanned aircraft, cameras, coding, firewalls etc., are heavily promoted at the European level. These technologies are important for our security and they are an incentive for a new economic market. However, we have to ensure security technology doesn’t become a weapon against human rights.

Security first

Attention to security has become an unprecedented priority ever since the terrorist attacks of 9/11. More than ever, citizens are made aware of the security risks in every aspect of our society and have become accustomed to various controls. Politicians emphasize the importance of ‘homeland security’, which must be defended on our own territory as well as elsewhere in the world. An industrial security industry, which taps into these new markets, has emerged alongside the traditional defence industry. This has to do with research, development and production for information technology, navigation, biometry, communication equipment, electronic identification, etc. In this regard, frequent use is made of generic civil technologies from, for instance, the world of communication and information technology. The ‘civil’ industries, but also the traditional defence industries, are active on the security market.

European Commission explores new economic market

Following the lead of the US, the European Union is also focusing on greater collaboration to reinforce internal security. Combating terrorism, attacks to critical infrastructure, cyber crime or guarding external European borders are among the policy areas that the EU takes to heart. Greater security is, however, not the only motive of the EU: in its report, the Flemish Peace Institute demonstrates how the European Commission seizes upon this area in order to develop a new economic market. A great deal of attention and resources are being dedicated to research in the security industry: 1.4 billion euros in the five past years. In this way, the European Commission is also specializing in research and development for security and defence, a domain which has traditionally been controlled by the Member States themselves.

Exports in order to make the European security industry profitable

The European Commission stimulates the supply, but the European demand (still a matter for the Member States) is not following. Member States are not totally convinced that these security technologies are a universal remedy against security threats. Moreover, European agencies have a smaller budget due to the economic crisis. Thus, according to the Commission, external markets are required in order to keep the European security industry profitable. This economically oriented attitude of the European Commission does not take into account the strategic and ethical aspects of the common foreign and security policy which the Member States within the EU are developing.

Human rights on the radar

The risks of the growing technological security apparatus with respect to privacy and respect for human rights in our own society, have often been pointed out. In the search for new markets, however, these risks are also exported outside the EU. Recently, during the Arab Spring, it became clear that security technologies are not only used to guarantee the security of civilians, but also for repression and human rights violations. European deep packet inspection technologies were used to filter the information available to citizens on the internet, while surveillance technologies were used to track and capture activists through social media use. It is important that the European Member States are aware of these risks when their security industries go in search of new markets. “Our research demonstrates that it is time for the EU to rethink the tense triangle between legitimate security needs, economic interests and the ethical aspirations of the EU”, says Tomas Baum, Director of the Flemish Peace Institute. “European control mechanisms are provided for exports of weapons and for civil products with a potential military application. This is much less clear for security technology.”

Additional information

The report, “A European Agenda for Security Technology: From Innovation Policy to Export Controls”, was written by Dr. Jocelyn Mawdsley of Newcastle University, commissioned by the Flemish Peace Institute. It is available in digital form via this link.

Watch the docuclip.

Lees het volledige rapport ‘Een Europese agenda voor veiligheidstechnologie: van innovatiebeleid tot exportcontroles’ in het Nederlands.