Question (P) – What is the aim of the project EXCHANGE?
Helena Machado – The EXCHANGE project studies the social, political, ethical and cultural impacts of the expansion of technological systems aimed at combating terrorism and cross-border crime in the European Union. From the analysis of a technological system for the automated exchange of DNA profiles in the framework of police and judicial cooperation in the European Union, we aim to reflect on the implications for citizenship, democracy, and social control. We specifically consider the implementation of the so-called Prüm Decisions, 2008, which require all Member States to create conditions for the reciprocal automated exchange of DNA data for the purposes of police and judicial cooperation. In sum, the EXCHANGE project aims addressing the complexities and challenges of the so-called “surveillance society in the 21st century”, in the context of an increasingly fragmented Europe, with a view to reflecting on the implications for citizenship, democracy, and social control. The EXCHANGE team is collecting empirical data in the 28 Member States, by conducting interviews and analyzing various types of documentation. At the same time, an in-depth comparative study of five case studies is planned in Portugal, Poland, Germany, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.One of the objectives is to understand how genetic technologies are incorporated into criminal investigation processes, and what difficulties and controversies arise in the criminal justice system.One of the most relevant dimensions of this study concerns the challenges posed by the transnational exchange of criminal intelligence-led information in relation to data protection and privacy, as legislative regulation and practices of the justice system vary considerably across countries.Another central aspect is the debate on the balance between public security and respect for human rights. On the one hand, society’s security has justified the growing expansion of surveillance systems aimed at controlling and predicting crime. On the other hand, the accumulation of information in large databases and the transnational sharing of this information raises risks to citizenship that must be debated in the public sphere. Finally, we want to understand the role and impact of the media in the dissemination of cultural messages around surveillance, criminal investigation using sophisticated technology, and the impact of the media in the reproduction of stereotypes in relation to crime perpetrated by particular social groups, ethnic minorities.
Q – What is the project funding and what is the validity period?
HM – The EXCHANGE project started in October 2015 and will run until 30 September 2020. It has a budget of about 1.8 million euros. This is a Consolidator Grant awarded by the European Research Council. This type of funding is awarded individually to scientists who develop excellence research in the European area, so that they can set up their own teams and develop their area of expertise.
Q – What is the importance of this project within the framework of the research?
HM – The EXCHANGE project addresses some of the most pressing issues for European society: terrorism and cross-border crime. The recent terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels have reignited political concerns over public security in Europe. Cross-border crime, in particular organized crime, is also a matter of concern to the law enforcement authorities of several Member States because of the complexity of their investigation and detection.However, a number of sectors of society, including civic organizations and citizens’ groups, express concerns about the way data are collected, processed and shared across countries. There is now a growing awareness of citizens’ concerns about threats to privacy and data protection. Civil society is increasing awareness to the risks posed by a surveillance society that by collecting massive citizen data can extend the networks of suspicion to any citizen.The EXCHANGE project aims to provide a relevant contribution to addressing these controversies in two main ways. On the one hand, it is the first empirical study on these issues that covers so many countries: as mentioned before, we are collecting data in the 28 Member States. Existing studies on the topic of genetic technologies applied to criminal investigations have essentially focused, so far, on the reality of the United Kingdom and the USA. On the other hand, the EXCHANGE relies on social science methodologies for mapping of the perspective of very different positionings in society: the vision of the criminal justice system operators and scientists who develop genetic technologies, but also of non-governmental organizations which seek to expose publicly the risks and dilemmas of the so-called surveillance society.
Q – What aspects would you like to highlight in this funding?
HM – The EXCHANGE project advocates a critical but constructive analysis of the controversies surrounding the balance between the guarantor of public safety and the fight against crime and respect for fundamental rights such as privacy and the presumption of innocence. The contribution to this debate, essential in a democratic society, is fulfilled by two main routes. On the one hand, it is the first empirical study on these issues that covers so many countries: as mentioned, we are collecting data in the 28 Member States. Existing studies on the subject of genetic technologies applied to criminal investigations have essentially focused on the reality of the United Kingdom and the USA. On the other hand, the EXCHANGE relies on social science methodologies that allow the mapping of the perspective of very different positions in society: the vision of the criminal justice system operators and scientists who develop genetic technologies, but also of non-governmental organizations which seek to expose publicly the risks and dilemmas of the mass surveillance and collection of data from extensive populations.I would also like to point out that the EXCHANGE examines how the media, more specifically the press, disseminate information about transnational criminal investigation and thus contribute to the reproduction and consolidation of stigmatization and criminalization towards certain ethnic minorities and migrant populations. In the context of the so-called “refugee crisis” and the intensification of migratory flows to Europe, this social phenomenon is particularly poignant. In fact, our analysis of speeches in the press in European countries that receive the most migratory flows reveals the perpetuation of mechanisms of suspicion in relation to “foreigners”.In sum, the EXCHANGE project examines issues that are particularly relevant to European society, confronted with pervasive societal challenges that balance between ensuring inclusive societies and the need to consolidate public security. Recently it was announced by the European Commission that one of the research challenges will be to find innovative mechanisms for a new urgent area for Europe: security and migration. The EXCHANGE project has, in a way, anticipated these needs in order to contribute to the design of public safety policies that are ethically responsible, based on principles of transparency and public trust.
Q – In terms of employability (scholarships and related), what does this project predict?
HM – The EXCHANGE project hired two postdoctoral students and three PhD students who are developing their doctoral thesis within the scope of this study. We will soon hire another PhD researcher, a science and technology manager and two graduates who will have the opportunity to develop their master’s dissertations within the EXCHANGE project.
Q – What is the balance of EXCHANGE’s journey?
HM – The whole team is very keen to make full use of the resources of excellence that have been made available to us by the European Research Council. This is a rare opportunity in the social and human sciences, especially in a country like Portugal that has only recently begun to gain competitiveness in terms of its ability to raise international funding of this nature. The balance of more than two years of project execution is frankly positive, for several reasons. Firstly, it is an interdisciplinary project that seeks to promote dialogue between social scientists and specialists in genetics and law. We have held very fruitful interdisciplinary debates that put in perspective very different perspectives and that allow us to gain space for reflection and cooperation with colleagues in the life sciences, namely, by participating in ethics committees of projects in the area of genetics. Secondly, this project allows us to consolidate at the University of Minho an area of knowledge that until now was concentrated in the United Kingdom and USA. This study is of interest to several scientific areas – sociology, anthropology, communication sciences, criminology, political science and international relations – and may constitute a platform for cooperation between different schools of the University of Minho. Our professional cooperation networks have been more international but at this stage we are also focusing on consolidating national collaborations. Our work has been disseminated in several countries, through publications in international magazines and books, conducting lectures and presenting communications and panels in congresses. I should like to highlight for 2018 the organization in June of a Summer School on “Surveillance, Criminality, and Human Rights” that will bring together speakers from different countries and distinct professional and disciplinary backgrounds. I would also like to point out the organization of an international congress in October 2018 on “Forensic Genetics and Society”, which will put into dialogue some of the most renowned European experts in this area, being an event of interest to students and professionals in the areas of criminology, sociology, forensic genetics and law and police studies.
Interview conducted by Vítor de Sousa and answered by writing.