New EU Project On Privacy And Surveillance Launched

SAPIENT will identify and analyze impacts posed by future smart surveillance technologies

June 2, 2011

3 Min Read


Reinforcing privacy in smart surveillance: A new EU-funded project will develop an early warning system

Smart surveillance technologies have been promoted as an important technological means to address security issues, but they also harbour significant risks to our privacy and other fundamental rights. How to deal with these risks is the subject of a new three-year project funded by the European Commission, called SAPIENT which stands for "Supporting fundamentAl rights, PrIvacy and Ethics in surveillaNce Technologies".

In the wake of the 11 September 2001 attacks, surveillance is becoming ubiquitous in our society. "Smart" surveillance technologies and assemblages (or combinations) of such technologies are emerging, supposedly to combat crime and terrorism, but in fact are being used for a variety of purposes, many of which intrude upon the privacy of law-abiding citizens.

Surveillance systems and technologies are no longer confined to law enforcement authorities, intelligence agencies and the military - modern information technology has manifested surveillance as an everyday phenomenon.

Already today, surveillance technology monitors traffic on our roads and passengers on the Underground; government services use surveillance technology to check who is really entitled to social services; employers monitor employee keystrokes, e-mails and phone calls; and Internet service providers inspect their customers' data traffic to target them with behavioural or personalised advertising.

The European Union has recognised the problematic potential of smart surveillance technologies and claims that a balance must be struck between surveillance and control to minimise the potential impact of terrorist action, on the one hand, and respect for human rights, privacy, social and community cohesion and the successful integration of minority communities on the other.

"If 'collective security' demands the surveillance of all movements and all telecommunications and collecting the fingerprints and DNA of everyone living in the EU, there can be no individual freedom, except that sanctioned by the state," says Michael Friedewald, head of the ICT research unit at the Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research (ISI) and co-ordinator of the project. "EU policy should not foster the gradual move towards a surveillance society. We recommend that before public or private sector organisations adopt any new surveillance system, they should perform a technology and privacy impact assessment of the proposed system."

SAPIENT will identify and analyse impacts posed by future smart surveillance technologies that may be used for profiling citizens in order to identify potential evil-doers, for crime control in urban settings or for border control and critical infrastructure protection. The project partners will discuss such application scenarios with interested stakeholders and, in due course, develop a specially tailored assessment technique that can be used by decision-makers as an early warning system.

The SAPIENT project is being undertaken by a consortium of seven partners. In addition to Fraunhofer ISI in Germany, the other partners are Trilateral Research & Consulting (UK), the Centre for Science, Society and Citizenship (Italy), the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (Belgium), the University of Lugano (Switzerland), King's College London (UK) and the Centre for European Policy Studies (Belgium). SAPIENT is co-funded under the third call for proposals for the Security Theme of the Seventh Framework Programme for Research of the European Commission.

More details about the project are available at or from [email protected]

The Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research ISI analyzes the framework conditions for innovations. We explore the short- and long-term developments of innovation processes and the societal impacts of new technologies and services. On this basis, we provide our clients from industry, politics and science with policy recommendations and perspectives for key decisions. Our expertise lies in a broad scientific competence as well as an inter-disciplinary and systemic research approach.

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