Irish centre takes a wider look at technology, security and society

26 Sep 2014

Sadhbh McCarthy, director, The Centre for Irish and European Security

The Centre for Irish and European Security is asking deep questions about how technology affects security and society. Claire O’Connell spoke with director Sadhbh McCarthy.

Technology can open doors, it can make life more convenient and it can allow us to engage with the world around us in different ways. That’s the good side.

But what if technology is used in a way that compromises our rights? Or in a manner that creates distrust and fear in society?

Those are the kinds of issues that Sadhbh McCarthy grapples with on a daily basis – as director of the Centre for Irish and European Security (CIES), her focus is on how the use of emerging technology is having an impact on society and security.

“We specialise in looking at security solutions and their societal implications,” says McCarthy. “We are asking whether the things we are doing are the best for everyone.”

She co-founded CIES in 2009 and the Dublin-based SME has boomed in recent times. “In the last year we have grown from two people to 10,” she says.

Eye to Europe

Security is a broad area, and CIES is involved as a partner on numerous EU-funded research projects to look at how technology is being implemented. From analysing the legal landscape to studying how humans engage with the technology, the centre is looking at a range of situations, including automated border control, emergency responses and counter-terrorism.

“Technology is not neutral, people experience technology in different ways depending on their own background and situation,” says McCarthy. “Our role is predominantly to see whether everything that we do is ethical and doesn’t cause as many problems as it aims to solve.”

Border control and emergency response

Border control is a particular flashpoint for the merging of technology and security, and CIES is on the case as a partner in the EU-funded Automated Border Control Gates for Europe project.  

“Automated border controls at airports are a great idea at one level – they can speed things up and be more efficient, they can be more accurate,” says McCarthy. “But they may also have a negative effect – they can make people feel nervous or intimidated or not want to travel, which is not what you want.”

CIES is also involved in an EU-funded project called DRIVER (Driving Innovation in Crisis Management for European Resilience), which is developing a test-bed of virtually connected facilities and labs for crisis response and improving crisis management across Europe.

So how do you figure out what’s best for everyone? “In any given project we look at the existing law, and also the broader aspects of fundamental rights,” explains McCarthy. “Then we take an observational approach to see whether this technology might have negative consequences for society.”

Counter-terrorism measures

One of the major questions CIES has been asking is whether counter-terrorism measures address more than terrorism.

The company is a partner on the EU-funded SECILE (Securing Europe Through Counter-Terrorism: Impact, Legitimacy and Effectiveness) project, which examined the laws and implementation of counter-terrorism measures in Europe and looked at how policy-makers and citizens view them.

“We wanted to look at what the member states are doing with the European legislation, and to what extent counter-terrorism legislation gets used in a way that is not actually dealing with terrorism,” says McCarthy, adding that the results are to be discussed at a conference in Dublin on 13 October.

Women in tech – a grassroots approach

McCarthy is a long-time campaigner for women in technology and business – she has run several International Women’s Day events and has been chair of Women in Technology and Science (WITS Ireland) – and she reckons there is now a greater awareness of the careers that are open to women, but there is a lot of work to be done.

And in the vein of the campaign that hit the headlines earlier this week thanks to actress Emma Watson’s UN speech, McCarthy believes the men have a role to play.

“I think we have done a lot of work on the level of policy and legislation and quotas, now it’s time to go for a ground-up approach and get men more involved,” she says.

“There is a critical mass of men who would be horrified to think that their sisters and mothers wouldn’t be allowed to have a career. So I would encourage them to make a stand and not attend or agree to speak at conferences where there has been no attempt to include women speakers. I’m in the process of setting up a network in Europe of women in security in space to address some of these problems and encourage a greater presence and visibility of women in conferences.”

Women Invent Tomorrow is Silicon Republic’s campaign to champion the role of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. It has been running since March 2013, and is kindly supported by Accenture Ireland, Intel, the Irish Research Council, ESB, Twitter, CoderDojo and Science Foundation Ireland.

Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication