Research Objectives

Research objective 1: Pre-emption. To generate new empirical knowledge of, and conceptual tools for understanding, how data elements from past events become actionable indicators of future possible terrorism threat.

A key challenge for data-led border security is the translation of data from past events – often mundane and ordinary data collected in the course of commercial transactions – into actionable indicators of a possible future threat or risk. Commonly these data are fragmentary and partial, only becoming meaningful for security measures in an abstracted form that is derived from the underlying relations and associations. What is not yet known, however, is precisely how so-called mosaic forms of integrated data are rendered deployable within pre-emptive border security decisions. This has significant implications for how we think about the future, as pre-emptive techniques are thought to “bring the future into the present”, to make present “the future consequences of an eventuality that may or may not occur” (Massumi 2005: 7-8). If the mosaic acts pre-emptively then it does not predict the future by tracking forward from past patterns of data, but imagines potential connections and links that can be acted upon. Pre-emption takes place, then, at the intersection between the imagination of associations within the software analytics and the space where these are rendered actionable. In empirical terms, for example, the Passenger Information Units required by the EU Directive on PNR become precisely the space of European border security, where the analytics-generated signals become rendered actionable (European Commission 2011).

Research objective 2: Protocols. To identify and assess the extent to which protocols for the analysis of indicators of future terrorism events are productive of codified responses to emergent threats.

A central problem for contemporary border security is how to reconcile novel technologies for anticipating future threat events with the necessary space for discretion on the ‘front line’. For example, while some key software innovators are working towards fully automated or self-learning technologies such as the ‘automated gate’, customs and immigration officials also signal the importance of “the intuition of an experienced border guard” (UKBA 2009). Put simply, it could be the case that it is departures from established risk protocols that are making it practically possible to pursue what the Department of Homeland Security, the European Commission and the Home Office all call “imaginative programs”. Though many of the software systems are designed precisely to delineate broadly codified risk-based responses – this specific level of risk triggers this range of actions – in their ‘proof of concept’ and pilot stages they do actively incorporate the expertise and intuitions of front-line staff. Initial indications are that this iterative relationship between system design and decision is lost once the protocols are established.

Research objective 3: Publics. To expand the scope for innovative, interdisciplinary forms of practitioner and public engagement with new border security technologies and data devices.

A significant finding from engagement with public and private groups in the course of our research has been that conventional categories such as ‘privacy’, ‘data protection’, and ‘proportionality’ have failed to keep pace with the derivative and mosaic forms of information in contemporary security. Perhaps surprisingly, security practitioners, legal advocates, and social theorists tend to agree that the protection of data that ‘belongs’ to an individual, or rights to personal privacy, are not strictly what is at stake in systems that act before an actual individual is named, and on the basis of an abstraction of underlying data. As one border security software engineer put it, “they’re unknown, except they’re not. We know there is a person who has been doing this and this and this. We just don’t know their name yet and we can stop them before we know it”. Because contemporary pre-emptive security practices are changing the nature of privacy, altering what counts as an individual and his or her associations, loosening the ties of causality and probability, social science has a responsibility to locate a new and broader terrain for public engagement.


We are social...