EU-funded research surveils social sites
Spying on social networks is the latest in a string of EU-funded projects to develop automated counter-terrorism and criminal surveillance systems that have sparked new fears of government snooping. EurActiv Germany reports.
“German police authorities are interested in software enabling them to monitor social networks and predict supposed threats," said Bundestag MP from the Left Party, Andrej Hunko.
"I criticise this form of profiling to the highest degree," the MP added.
In early March, Hunko received a response from the German Interior Ministry to an inquiry regarding Germany’s involvement in two EU-funded surveillance projects, CAPER and PROACTIVE.
But most of the Ministry’s statements remained vague or inconclusive, going no further than stating that integration of open source information with closed source data was “conceptually” intended in the project.
Last Monday (10 March) Hunko reemphasised his tough stance on spying research.
"Both projects pursue a similar goal", explained Hunko. "Automated tools are being developed to assess and present data from search engines and social networks." Information collected in this way can then be linked to other data, he said, such as data flows from surveillance of public areas.
On its own website, PROACTIVE calls this linkage "fusion", combining two different types of data: "static knowledge (i.e. intelligence information) and dynamic information (i.e. data observed from sensors deployed in the urban environment)".
Initiated in May 2012, PROACTIVE is the latest surveillance research project under the EU’s Framework Programme 7 for Research and Innovation (FP7). It differs from its predecessors by acting as a pre-emptive measure to help prevent terrorism-related threats before they materialise. The project’s sponsors include the Italian company Vitrociset S.p.A., specialising in surveillance systems in the civil and military sectors, as well as the University of Science and Technology in Krakow, Poland and the University of the Federal Armed Forces in Munich.
In July 2011, CAPER was started as an audio-visual project designed to track organised crime. Also a part of the FP7 programme, CAPER endeavours to seek out offenders “through sharing, exploitation and analysis of open and private information sources.”
In Germany, the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) and the federal police take part as observers in the EU-funded CAPER project and the Fraunhofer Institute for Computer Graphics Research IGD has contributed software which is already in use at the BKA. In addition, the Bavarian state bureau of investigation (Landeskriminalamt) and the University of the Federal Armed Forces in Munich are also involved.
Together, the two projects cost around €12 million, of which the Commission covers roughly two-thirds. But a third project under FP7 called INDECT sparked an earlier debate as the first EU project to sharpen surveillance activities.
In 2010, the INDECT project aroused widespread criticism among citizen’s rights groups in Europe, hearkening back to images from George Orwell’s classic novel 1984. Contrary to popular fears of total surveillance, the Commission described the project as an effort to improve the way “existing images of video surveillance cameras” are analysed.
INDECT was intended as a useful tool for detecting crisis situations before they occur by developing “algorithms to identify images that allow the detection of dangerous or criminal behaviour.” This could have been useful in preventing tragedies like the crowd rush at the Loveparade in Duisburg, Germany, and at Heysel Stadium, in Brussels, in 1985.
But warnings of “Orwellian artificial intelligence” plans spread through the European media like wildfire; particularly in Germany, where memories of an omniscient surveillance state are still fresh in the minds of many citizens. “It seems as though the Commission is financing total surveillance in European states – apparently the INDECT project is meant to enable spying on people at all times and in all places”, Alexander Alvaro, then internal affairs spokesman for Germany’s FDP group in the European Parliament, explained in 2010.
EU to develop drones for automated spying project?
But according Hunko, who represents his party in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, “the latest EU projects go much further: Intelligence data is combed using 'semantic analytical tools'."
The project descriptions alone, the intelligence expert said, reveal their unlimited scope of application. The Ministry’s response, states that open source monitoring – dubbed “population scanning” by Hunko – is not restricted to criminal investigations, but can be subject to more general use in "risk prevention opportunities".
The Ministry did not illuminate much more about the CAPER and PROACTIVE projects than was already available to the public. Concrete questions regarding scenarios for use of semantic analysis and visual processing, for example, were brushed off in the Ministry response. “Such assessments can only be carried out after the project’s conclusion”, the document said.
Asked by Hunko whether the Bundeswehr intends to experiment with surveillance drones, the Ministry of the Interior did not divulge any specifics. Instead, it indicated the involvement of the University of the Federal Armed Forces in Munich. Its Institute for Flight Systems wants to introduce a so-called "mobile flying sensor node", the Ministry said.
Surveillance discourages public expression
But the Bundeswehr is also interested in spying on the Internet. The German Defense Ministry finances a research project itself on "knowledge discovery from open sources", Hunko pointed out. Fraunhofer Institut and IBM are among the project's partners.
Internet users should not be seen as potential "offenders", contended the Left Party MP. These EU research projects undermine the already shaken trust in freedom of telecommunication, Hunko said, adding that they are going in the wrong direction.
"Whoever must assume that private Twitter accounts or blogs can be automatically scanned for future risks, will withhold public expression. We already know this from surveillance of political meetings. For this reason, the Federal Ministry of the Interior must pull out of this project completely", Hunko emphasised.