Why assess societal impact?

Security research and innovative application of security technologies is a complex and heterogeneous field that pulls together various academic disciplines and different types of organisation. Several features characterise the field of security research. These features include ethical and social issues that have been identified by different research fields.

Security itself is socially and institutionally valued, attracting significant funding streams and market attention. The security industry is regarded as an important economic sector for Europe (McCarthy 2012). Security has a particular institutionalisation within policy-making communities (Chilton, 1996:23). Security research programmes, such as the EU’s Secure Societies (European Commission: http://ec.europa.eu/programmes/horizon2020/en/h2020-section/secure-societies-%E2%80%93-protecting-freedom-and-security-europe-and-its-citizens) effort, therefore take place within these social, economic and political contexts.

Identifying some feature of the world as a security issue is to grant it a particular privileged political status and to start to frame the issue in a specific way, deserving political and social responses and identifying it as the responsibility of certain political actors (Buzan et al 1998). This framing of what counts as a security risk is known as securitization and has been the subject of considerable research within international relations security studies (Buzan and Hansen 2009). Similarly, security practices, including research and innovation, can contribute to the normalisation of security (Nissenbaum 2009: 161), with security becoming an organising principle across many areas of social life, sometimes to the detriment of other values or principles, such as, for example, privacy, transparency, freedom of speech or the democratic process. Security impacts can be powerful, and frequently distributed unevenly across society (for example, border security measures may be intended to increase national security, but can increase insecurity for asylum seekers and immigrants).  Some groups are particularly vulnerable to the negative impacts of security research and implementation and often excluded from decision-making processes. These groups can suffer from cumulative disadvantage, which in turn can have negative implications for social cohesion (Lianos 2000). Security processes often have the potential to negatively impact citizen’s fundamental rights.

Security (and security research) is part of the political process; however, societies often experience periods of delay between the societal impacts of security policy and intervention, social awareness of these impacts, their examination in the democratic process and responses to them from law and regulation. During this lag, security practices and technologies can become entrenched in areas of social life making it difficult to dislodge them. A related problem is function creep, where security technologies installed for one purpose are used for secondary, initially unintended or unstated uses. Misalignment and disjunction between agencies and actors with responsibility for promoting security technology, and those with responsibility for assessing, controlling and in some cases limiting and preventing negative impacts, can also exacerbate these situations (Rip & Schot 1997).

Security research, especially in the fields of crime prevention and national security, often has less transparency than in areas where national interests are not seen as affected in such an immediate way, and governmental bodies are less centrally involved. There is limited public access to knowledge about the research. This often serves to exclude stakeholders, whilst at the same time limiting the acceptability of security measures, causing them to be viewed with suspicion.

It is important for people and institutions involved in both security research and the innovative application of security technologies to consider the wide range of possible societal impacts of these activities, as a response to the above political and social issues, and as part of maximising the positive social benefits of security research whilst minimising the negative effects. Societal impact assessment therefore has a critical role in the security research and implementation process.

SIA is the process of understanding, managing and responding to the societal impacts that arise from security research and the application of innovative security measures. The use of the term societal (rather than social) connotes the inclusion of anything affecting human, natural or artefactual systems, rather than just those effects that impact upon humans and their interactions.  It also allows us to distinguish the process from social impact assessment, as discussed below.

From a positive perspective, societal impact assessments can also provide a better understanding of the productive and socially desirable impacts that arise from security research, including how best to maximise these contributions. Conducting impact assessment exercises as part of security research and innovation contributes towards the evidence base for these activities. SIA can contribute towards understanding the societal impact of larger scale research funding frameworks and policies, including their contribution toward policy objectives (for example, the partial goal of European Union security research funding in boosting the competitiveness of the EU security industry).

Security research and innovation are, by definition, intended to produce, encourage or support security as societal impact. An inclusive definition of security includes those practices and technologies aimed at strengthening social bonds and social resilience using social policy tools as well as just preventive measures against particular threats. This understanding of security aligns with the concept of human security. Rather than conceptualising security as an outcome of using security technologies, security is conceptualised here as one of the societal impacts of security measures. Although security research and the implementation of security measures have internal differences, this paper discusses them together, as they are both amenable to the assessment approach set out here.

Buzan, Barry, and Lene Hansen (2009) The Evolution of International Security Studies, Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Chilton, P. (1996) Security Metaphors: Cold War Discourse from Containment to Common House.  New York: Peter Lang.

European Commission, ‘Secure Societies – protecting freedom and security of Europe and its citizens.’ http://ec.europa.eu/programmes/horizon2020/en/h2020-section/secure-societies-%E2%80%93-protecting-freedom-and-security-europe-and-its-citizens accessed 29 January 2014.

McCarthy, Sabhbh (2012) Report of the Societal Impact Expert Working Group: EC DG ENTR Report.

Nissenbaum, Helen (2009) Privacy in Context: Technology, Policy, and the Integrity of Social Life, Stanford: Stanford Law Books.

Rip, Arie, and Johan Schot (1997)’The Past and Future of Constructive Technology Assessment’, Technological Forecasting and Social Change. 54(2-3): 251-268.