Predicaments of policy-oriented security research

If there’s something wrong in the neighbourhood, who you gonna call? Ghostbusters!

Reinhard Kreissl
25 October 2017

Trump - Womens March on 21 January,2017. Wikicommons/ Mark Dixon. Some rights reserved.Typically, security research is called upon to give advice on how to sort things out when there is something wrong.

9/11 was the watershed and since then the security industry’s R&D-Ghostbusters have been busy determining who the ghosts are and what gadgets and policies are needed to save and protect human lives from imminent threats.

Like the ghosts in the movie these threats become visible and tangible only through the use of sophisticated high-tech equipment that must be handled by professional security experts. Scanners, sensors, surveillance wet-, soft- and hardware are offered for sale to public authorities and their private contractors on flourishing security markets.

As long as the chase for ghosts goes on chances are good that at least one of the five key objectives of the European security research programme will be achieved: the establishment of a “Competitive European Security Industry”.


Policy- or mission-oriented research in the field of security is confronted with a non-negotiable a-priori: there is a security problem! Hence, the focus of research is on finding a solution to a problem.

What exactly the problem is, however, remains unquestioned. This has created an approach that critical observers have labelled techno-solutionism. We do not exactly know what the problem is, but we assume technology will provide a solution. At the research end of the equation this techno-solutionism has created a strong bias towards technology and engineering efforts: here is the problem, go find a technical solution!

A closer look at the problem of problematizing, though, is missing. How threatening are the threats – this question is out of scope for the European (and most national) security research programmes. At the policy end, no awkward question will be asked, since the evil forces are the evil forces and all efforts are directed to combat them – terrorism, organised crime, illegal migration, cyber criminals. The focus of research is on finding a solution to a problem. What exactly the problem is, however, remains unquestioned.

What are the reasons for this shortcut that creates a blind spot or no-go area for research, preventing a close scrutiny of the presumed security problems in their wider context before embarking on the search for technology-based solutions? Policy actors, security professionals and the R&D division of the security-industrial complex (aka military-industrial complex during the Cold War era) need the “security ghosts” to pursue their strategies.

As critical policy analysis has recurrently demonstrated, a securitizing policy strategy and governing through crime and fear are perfect ways to curtail any discussions about wider societal problems of social justice, global economic exploitation, or environmental issues etc. A policy approach that, for example, defines the flow of refugees from the Global South across the Mediterranean primarily as a problem of better border controls to prevent the influx of Islamist terrorists to mainland Europe has successfully managed to ignore the wider context of this problem.

Awkward questions about the impact of European policies on global migration triggered off by violent conflicts, environmental degradation and neo-imperialist economic policies will not be asked, when the focus is put on seemingly proximate “terrorist threats” and illegal immigration.

Look again: where is the threat?

However, where is the threat? Stripped down to brute figures and body count, over hundred thousand Europeans fall prey to medical malpractice and die from iatrogenic disease each year, air pollution produces a similarly high death toll among European citizens and the chance of becoming a victim of a deadly assault by your spouse, though very small, is still significantly higher than being stabbed by a terrorist’s knife.

Such figures could help to defuse the security hype, they could trigger a debate on what kinds of threats Europeans should be aware of and which security problems they should address, how public money should be spent and where urgent political action is required.

But this debate is missing.

Policy actors and security professionals sharing control over the hegemonic security discourse realign fears and channel public arousal towards their convenient enemies. The members of the law enforcement and intelligence community have a dual role in this setting: they are on the one hand the legitimate experts institutionally endowed to speak about and define security threats. Threat levels have to be kept high to maintain the role of the security professionals and boost further investment in security technology.

On the other hand, they are the beneficiaries of security investments and policies. This puts them into a paradoxical situation. If they were successful in curbing the security threats, it could weaken their position: mission accomplished, no further urgent action needed. Hence, threat levels have to be kept high to maintain the role of the security professionals and boost further investment in security technology.

This raises the question of the security-industrial complex. During the Cold war era under the bipolar world order, defence-related industries generated substantial profits from continuous public investments in upgrading military technology. Over the last decades public spending has shifted from military to civil security. Innovation and investment cycles in military R&D presumably span over a longer period and so the big corporate players in this field simply attached a civil label to their products, selling them as either dual use or suitable for civil security purposes. To keep this business model alive, the convenient security problems have to be well advertised.

Rare voices, no nonsense and no magic bullets

Security research extending its scope beyond the narrow techno-solutionist focus could provide policy makers and the general public with a number of sobering insights. It could add complexity to the debate and provide evidence-based arguments for a comprehensive policy approach reaching beyond the presently pursued more-of-the-same strategy.

A critical evaluation of existing approaches could challenge the claims of technology- and surveillance-based security solutions, triggering policy debates about redirecting investments and public spending.

This might help to balance policies and weigh alternative options more carefully before embarking on “new and improved” security technologies.

A few researchers address security issues outside the dominant techno-solutionist frame, looking beyond the dominant policy agenda. However, these voices are rarely heard. Of course, scholars and researchers in critical security studies are offered their slots in policy hearings, they take the floor in committees and meetings where the European Security Agenda is discussed.

Their input though, typically, has the status of interesting after dinner talks, given by invited speakers to cheer up the audience after long hours of serious business. Raising their fingers and pointing to (unintended) side-effects of pervasive surveillance and increasing securitization, these critical experts may send a shiver down the spine of one or the other policy maker, triggering second thoughts about what business as usual in security policy could lead to. But this critical discourse does not affect the security policy agenda shaped by adherents of a self-declared no-nonsense policy approach.

The reasons for this are obvious: any serious critical analysis of the present security landscape will refrain from offering magic bullets to solve a problem. After a spectacular terrorist attack, there is no similarly spectacular serious policy response. After decades, if not centuries of imperialist policies, shaping the Global South, there is no miraculous formula stopping global migration towards “our” wealthy northern countries. But since the ensuing security problems seem to be popping up quite unexpectedly, there is a demand for immediate, effective solutions and counteraction, so policy makers are yearning for magic bullet type solutions. Opting for a “solution” taking effect beyond the next election date would be irrational for every politician or member of a parliamentary assembly, who wants to be re-elected.

Also, the timescale of parliamentary elections is not compatible with the scope and pace of modern security threats. While research might offer ideas and comprehensive strategies for medium and long term approaches to present-day security problems, opting for a “solution” taking effect beyond the next election date would be irrational for every politician or member of a parliamentary assembly, who wants to be re-elected.

Breaking news

Many problems of contemporary global society are beyond the reach of direct political governance. Security problems sometimes can be presented, at least on political platforms, as being within the scope of policy solutions. But any serious policy approach to these problems would require a thorough understanding and discussion of complex and interrelated networks of causation and effects.

The limitations of political debate imposed by the logic of sensationalist media, offering slots of less than 90 seconds to explain world events as breaking news, runs counter to any thorough deliberation of contemporary security problems.

And last not least, the policy actors in charge of taking far-reaching decisions on security issues themselves rarely have immersed into the complexity of the issues they have to vote on. They rely on the expertise and advise offered to them, and it has been demonstrated over the years and across all parliaments of the Western world, that it is the representatives of the industry and powerful lobby groups who are able to bring their message across to the politicians. Heterodox experts, representatives from NGOs, or citizen groups never can activate the PR resources and manpower big corporations throw into the hegemonic battle over agenda setting. (Whoever has taken the bus from Brussels Airport and looked at the corporate labels at the office buildings along the freeway to the city will get an idea of the range of interests presented to the European policy makers.) Offering slots of less than 90 seconds to explain world events as breaking news, runs counter to any thorough deliberation of contemporary security problems.

Trojan horses and linear pathways

Is there a way out of this – admittedly somewhat simplified – scenario and the pessimistic assessment of the role of research in security policy?

It depends. Given the current situation with powerful lobby groups having taken the security policy discourse hostage, a re-orientation towards alternative security narratives will be difficult to achieve. Pointing out negative side effects of the current policy approach – from privacy and data protection issues to inefficiency of solutions and waste of resources – may lead to minor realignments. However, it will hardly change the overall framing of security policy as a threat-based, techno-fix enterprise of chasing ghosts.

The robustness of this framing can be studied in one of the recent innovative turns in European security policy, intended to address the wider root causes of Islamist terrorism. The establishment of RAN, the European Radicalisation Network reflects a shift from simple technology-based surveillance towards other dimensions of security.

The idea was to bring together, in a more bottom-up fashion, experts across Europe working on “de-radicalisation” to co-operate and exchange best practices. Approx. 20 million euro were provided to involve local initiatives and communities in looking at social and cultural factors leading to radicalisation and extremism.

What looks at first glance like a well-meaning social policy approach to tackle problems of social injustice, xenophobia and inequality turns out to be a Trojan Horse spreading surveillance and threat-based screening practices across the community, since the underlying rationale assumes a linear pathway from radical attitudes to violent criminal acts of terrorism.

This not only can turn engaged community activists into the informers of a preventive surveillance regime but also cuts deep into the rights of freedom of speech and political engagement. Teachers, social workers, representatives of local Muslim communities are invited to look for early warning signs and report to the police, should they encounter a (potential, future, probable) radical extremist.

However this new programme will develop in the future, it reveals the fundamental irony of policy-oriented security research. Emphasising the genuine societal nature and root causes of social and security problems security research can trigger two fundamentally different policy responses: either a change of the root cause conditions or a broadening of the surveillant gaze.

Finally, it requires a clear political decision opting for either the security of the many to be protected from the dangerous few, or a commitment for social justice, respect and equal opportunities for all.

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