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Transparency lawsuit on secretive EU sci-fi surveillance research: Judges question non-disclosure

Today, the European Court of in Luxembourg heard a case brought by MEP and civil liberties activist Patrick Breyer (Pirate Party) against the secrecy of the EU-funded iBorderCtrl research project. Among other things, the project included the development of  a “video lie detector” based on “artificial intelligence” to be used on travellers to the European Union. The technology is supposed to detect whether people are lying when answering questions based on their facial expressions.

The research agency’s lawyer admitted in court that the case raised questions of fundamental importance for EU research funding. However, the jurist insisted: “democratic control of research funding is not necessary“. EU research programmes deliberately did not pursue an open access approach in order to protect competitive advantages of participating companies. Disclosure of the iBorderCtrl project would jeopardise the commercial interests and reputation of the participating companies and institutions. Out-of-context statements in public could put pressure on those responsible and jeopardise the finalization and marketing of the technology.

The plaintiff’s lawyer countered that this research project was exemplary for a whole series of highly problematic EU research projects on developing questionable surveillance and control technology. Journalists and civil society failed to obtain information on other projects as well. This precedent would determine whether private financial sales and profit interests prevail over the transparency interests of the public, science, the media and democratic institutions.

The judges questioned the agency intensively and critically for over an hour, for example about whether the entirety of ethical and legal assessments contained internal business know-how or only parts of them. In the end, the presiding judge said that they had seen the documents. In relation to the “artificial intelligence” technology, the documents dealt with i.e. ethnic characteristics of persons. Of course, this raised questions and discussions. According to the presiding judge, would it not also be in the interest of the Executive Agency itself to demonstrate that it had nothing to hide? Couldn’t publication also objectify and calm the public discussion?

The court has yet to set a decision date.

“The EU keeps having dangerous surveillance and control technology developed, and will even fund weapons research in the future, I hope for a landmark ruling that will allow public scrutiny and debate on unethical publicly funded research in the service of private profit interests,” comments plaintiff and MEP Breyer. “With my transparency lawsuit, I want the court to rule once and for all that taxpayers, scientists, media and Members of Parliament have a right to information on publicly funded research – especially in the case of pseudoscientific and Orwellian technology such as the ‘iBorderCtrl video lie detector’.”

With the supposed “video lie detector” iBorderCtrl, the EU has tested the use of “artificial intelligence” in immigration controls. On 15 March 2019, Breyer filed a lawsuit for the release of documents on the ethical evaluation, legal admissibility, marketing and results of the project. The research project had been funded by the Commission under the Horizon2020 programme.

In the run-up to the hearing, the EU Commission has left Breyer’s parliamentary questions on false accusations and discriminatory effects of the “video lie detector technology” unanswered.

More information on the case 

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