Monthly Archives: April 2016

The war on terror continues to gnaw on civil rights

Just i few weeks ago, the European Parliament approved the gathering of Passenger Name Record (PNR) data for all flight passengers entering or leaving EU. The Parliaments summary of the stakes conclude:

“PNR data would enable law enforcement authorities to identify previously “unknown” persons, i.e. those previously unsuspected of involvement in serious crime or terrorism, but whom an analysis of the data suggests may be involved in such crime and could be further investigated by the authorities.”

The term “unknown” is unsettling.

In contrast to the current measures Advance Passenger Information (API) the Schengen Information System (SIS) and the second order Schengen Information System (SIS II), which only enables law enforcement to search for previously known suspects, this directive opens up for the investigation and tracking of individuals using airline passengers’ data irrespective of whether or not they are suspected of any crime. It is not a far drawn conclusion that some form of broad trawling will occur.

What will be the effect of such broad trawling of travel records and personal information, and the storage of the same? In opposition to API, stored records are just that – stored, and can then mostly be used after something has happened, or to track individuals of suspicion, but its effect in preventing a new attack is doubtful. Especially since would-be terrorists can read open media as well as anyone, and supposedly have no problems adjusting their travelling schedules to stay under the radar. If that happens what is the next step? To turn up the volume? Today’s directive is limited to external airborne travel (p.3). If it would be extended to internal EU travel – which will come under consideration in two years time – EU will have taken a first step from a union promoting free trade to a nation of surveillance.

Will this happen? It seems the exclusion of intra-EU flights is not primarily because of concerns for data protection, but a request from air carriers (p.7), who feel this would “imply heavy costs and an unfavourable competitive position compared to other
transport modes”. Including other modes of transport in the directive would surely solve the unfairness in competitive position and has also been proposed in the 2011 working paper on impact assessment (p.38).

The combination of an extension to internal-EU flights and all modes of transport would certainly be happy days for programmers and IT-technicians. Worse days for passengers who will most likely be stuck with the effect of this through higher ticket prices. The worst of days for anyone concerned with personal privacy.

It seems, the concern for terrorist activity has tipped the opinion of policy makers in the direction of efforts to improve security instead of civil liberties. With no regard for the fact that terrorists have repeatedly shown the ability to strike despite all such efforts. From a terror perspective, one target may be just as good as another. If one seems to hard to reach, there is always a plan B, a strategy well demonstrated by the Brussels attack. It is thought that, after the Paris attack on Friday, 13 November 2015, a second one was planned, but that the target changed, and the schedule was rushed as a result of successful efforts from law enforcement.

For a terrorist, harder oppression is rarely a problem. But a terror organisation that cannot recruit has a worse problem. In a dictatorial police-state, terrorist activity is next to impossible. But harder pressure from the enemy (the free state) will also mean just the opposite – more potential candidates willing to sign up.

For the free state, the situation is reversed. Tools of surveillance, oppression and interference in civil rights will – maybe – make the single terrorist easier to catch, but what’s the point, if – by that time – the free state is no longer free? It’s a lose-lose situation.

Secondly, once tools of oppression are created they are there to stay. Today, these tools may be wielded by law enforcement and government officials in more or less transparent democracies in which we believe we can trust, but what happens when this is no longer the case? Governments change, but the tools we hand them remain.

Terrorists seek publicity by spreading fear and chaos, but also seek to polarise the debate and create a harder climate between “us” and “them”. Unfortunately there is no shortage of politicians anxious to help them along by demonstrating to the press and the public that they are  taking resolute action. If the resolute action is effective or not, does not appear to be under much consideration. Nor is there a shortage of IT and defence firms seeking new markets. No conspiracy theories needed – a self-driven spiral of common interest will suffice. By enforcing more and more restrictions, we are slowly creating a society less and less like the the society we want, and more and more like one the terrorists would like.

The European Data Protection Supervisor, discussing PNR systems more generally, has noted that (p.4):
“The fact that recent technological developments currently render wide access and analysis possible […] is not in itself a justification for the development of a system aimed at the screening of all travellers. In other words: the availability of means should not justify the end.”

Asking for Evidence

The EU directive on gathering Passenger Name Record (PNR) data for all flight passengers entering or leaving EU will imply an increase in cost for air carriers and be severely intrusive to data protection. Is it worth it? Is it effective? Are the effects proportionate to its negative impact?

So far, no hard evidence has been presented by EU institutions to demonstrate the need for PNR collection and analysis, as has been previously reported by Statewatch (p.3).

The Commission’s impact assessment on its proposal relied on three cases to illustrate the necessity of the system.

The first example (p.12) is a case where PNR analysis uncovered a group of human traffickers always travelling on the same route. The second case (p.12) relates to human and drug trafficking cartels, identified on the basis of having bought tickets with stolen credit cardsby PNR. The third argument is the unsubstantiated claim by a number of third countries and member states that (p.13):
“The experience of those countries shows that the use of PNR data has led to critical progress in the fight against crime, in particular, drugs and human trafficking and the fight against terrorism, and a better understanding of terrorist and other criminal groups through the gathering of intelligence on their travel patterns.”
However, no data from member states is shown to support these statements.

Several institutions have raised the need for evidence:

The Article 29 Working Party, an advisory institution made  up  of  representatives  of  EU  Member  States’  data  protection authorities, has stated that (p.3):
“The Working Party has yet to see any statistics showing the ratio between the number of innocent travellers whose PNR data was collected to the number of law enforcement outcomes resulting from that PNR data.”

The European Data Protection Supervisor, discussing PNR systems more generally, has noted that (p.4):
“The necessity of the measures must be established and supported by concrete evidence”

Despite this, the fight against terrorism is mentioned in the European Parliamentary Research Service briefing (p.1) as the primary reason behind the PNR proposal.

The Fire Window through the Ask for Evidence campaign in this open letter invites the European Parliamentary Research Service to present evidence for the claim that the implementation of a framework for surveillance would in fact reduce terrorist activity within European borders.

New Accelerator for eHealth

Health2b, a new accelerator has started in Lund in collaboration with Lund Life Science Incubator, Startup Studio Malmö and Healthy Habits. During three months the participants will take part in an intense series of activities lead by a team of mentors.

Lund has a previous high focus on IT and life Science, so eHealth is a natural step for focused activities.

The European Union of Ghettos

After a few months after Swedish authorities closed the border, it is time to carry out a citizens test the crossing. For those who are not familiar with southern Swedish geography, the two countries are connected by a bridge, with the Swedish city Malmö on one side and the Danish capital Copenhagen on the other. Despite the fact that Malmö has its own airport, the Copenhagen airport is both closer and more frequented. Consequently, most airborne international traffic enters Sweden via Denmark. Before the ID checks were in place, this was as easy as landing in Malmö. The two cities have over the years grown together to one region, and the border has been free to cross since 1958. This has changed.

If you land in Copenhagen today, inbound from an international destination, your passport will be checked at the Copenhagen airport as usual, but after this, you’d better not put it away. Danish border check will check it again upon entering the train platform. Not even after you board the train you can relax. As soon as the train arrives on the Swedish side, the Swedish border check will again ask you for an ID, before you are allowed to continue.

Let us assume that you arrive from a country within EU with special restrictions, such as the UK, with an extra ID check before you even enter the plane, then we end up with the final count of four ID checks on the way between two countries in the same European Union, with its vision to promote free speech, trade and movement.

Is this the Union we stive to create?

NOTE: This article does not go into detail of the much more serious consequences for refugees and others without a valid ID, as this has been much debated in other forums. For instance, Swedish Radio has published an good investigative documentary on the border situation (in Swedish).

How Terrorists Negotiate European Politics

On 14 April 2016, the European Parliament finally approved the much debated proposal on the storage and analysis of data from flight passengers entering and leaving Europe, the so called PNR data. New Europe reports:

“Travel arrangements recorded as PNR data are used to identify specific behavioral patterns and make associations between known and unknown people.”

For now, the directive only concerns external flight passengers, but the proposal includes an option to extend it to internal passengers as well, to be revised in two years time. According to New Europe, the vote was preceded by intense lobbying from (among others) the French prime minister. The history of this proposal provides an interesting insight into how we let external events and fear influence the policies we make.

The EU PNR proposal was presented to the Commission in February 2011 and was rejected by the Civil Liberties Committee in Apr 2013, on the grounds of questionable proportionality between the scope as regards offenses and as regards privacy and impact on society. After this, the debate around the proposal was low key. but in 2014, it was referred back to the Civil Liberties Committee. Shortly after, the political arena of Europe changed. On January 7-9 2015 5 terrorist attacks took place in the Ile the France region starting with the the Charlie Hebdo shooting and ending in the hostage situation on an industrial estate in Dammartin-en-Goële and in the kosher supermarket in Porte de Vincennes.

When debating the issue again on November 11 2014, the Civil Liberties Committee were still divided, but

“most stressed the need to assess the EU Court of Justice (ECJ) ruling annulling the data retention directive, to assess whether existing measures suffice before taking new ones and to put in place adequate data protection safeguards.”

Two days later, on November 13, terrorists attacked the Bataclan theatre and a number of other targets in Paris. Not even a month later, the proposal was endorsed by the Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Committee on 10 December 2015 by 38 votes to 19, with 2 abstentions. Not surprisingly, the final proposal was approved on April 14 2016. In between, terrorists struck Brussels on March 22.

Anyone with a tendency for conspiracy theories would point out the almost perfect timing between these external events and the scheduling of politically sensitive votes. Of course, The Fire Window is not prone to such accusations, but from an introspective perspective it is of interest to note the change in tone between the issues released from the Article 29 Working Project over the same time.

The Article 29 Data Protection Working Project (WP29) is an independent group under Directive 95/46/EC of the European Parliament. It has an advisory capacity with regard to the protection of individuals and the processing of personal data. In a press release following the Charlie Hebdo shootings, the WP29 state that

“Today  more  than  ever,  European  citizens  need  to  show  that  our  societies  will  stand
strong on their common values. These values are fundamental democratic assets, which have developed and matured over centuries and must not be surrendered, whatever the circumstances”

and

“The  current  situation  obviously  makes it  more  necessary  than  ever  to  ensure  that  an appropriate balance is struck between these different, but not contradictory objectives.” [“The objectives” referring to the  “freedom of speech or freedom of movement vs public security requirements and the need to foster innovation”]

In the aftermath of the Snowden scandal in 2014, the contents of The Opinion 04/2014 on surveillance of electronic communications for intelligence and national security purposes (p.2) the tone is even stronger:

“From its analysis, the Working Party concludes that secret, massive and indiscriminate surveillance programs are incompatible with our fundamental laws and cannot be justified by the fight against terrorism or other important threats to national security”

The above two examples chimes well with the concerns raised against the original PNR proposal in 2011, whereas the most resent press release, on the April 2016 vote, carries a very different tone when it states:

“The WP29 welcomes this major decision for European credibility and has already started
working  to  ensure  a  smooth  and  constructive  transitional  period  for  all  stakeholders,
especially to be ready to act as the European Data Protection Board on Day 1.”

The Worlds Largest Imaging Project – Take2

UK Biobank has now launched the second phase of its imaging study.

In a £43m project, 100.000 of the 500.000 previous participants will be contacted again and asked to undergo a set of scans of their internal organs. The UK Biobank imaging facilities consists of a DEXA (Dual Echo Ray Absorptiometry)scan, ultrasound and two MRI cameras, or 3 and 1.5 Tesla, respectively. Conventional X-Ray and CT scans are not taken, to avoid exposing healthy people to unnecessary radiation.

The pre-study for the imaging project (already the largest imaging study in the world) took part in the imaging facilities in the main headquarter in Stockport, but for the large study, two more imaging facilities will be used.


The study is planned to take at least six years to complete. The largest expected benefit is the possibility to combine information from the imaging scans with data previously taken; blood, urine and saliva, and with patient records for the years to come. Having scans available from before a person caught on a decease is a rare opportunity when it comes to analyzing causes and risk factors.

What if a yearly scanning procedure would be available from your GP as a part of a standard health check-up – perhaps in combination with a one-off genetic screening?
What if it would be possible to use the results of such a scan, in combination with conventional medical tests to predict the risk of coronary heart decease or stroke with some certainty?

The future seem not far beyond the horizon.

Stand Up for Science

standupforscience  A number of Societies and Organizations, together with a few universities helped Voice of Young Science (VOYS) and Sense About Science sponsor the “Standing Up for Science Media Workshop” today, April 8 2016. Among the sponsors was my old acquaintance, the Biochemical Society and so it happened I had an occasional notification on mail a few weeks back. I was in the need of some new material for the blog, But busy as one is during the last months of an education, I still hesitated to go. Another workshop? As if I hadn’t got enough excuses to avoid writing on my thesis already. Then after some days decision anxiety, I put in the application. After all there are worse ways to waste one’s time. At the very least, it would give me the opportunity to clear my brain among fellow scientists. I also recently got involved as a mentor to two engaging end very inquisitive students from the
British Science Association journalism competition, frequently picking my brain over mail. But sometimes I felt that their questions and my answers were not always on the same course. I could not help thinking I could use some help in how to better explain my research to a journalist. So I went. If nothing else, there would be a free lunch…

It turned out to be a day way above expectations.

The event took place at Manchester University and attracted young scientists from both UK and the rest of Europe. The workshop itself consisted of a combination of workshop and panelist discussion with both scientists, experienced in media communication, and with science journalists.

Personally for me as a young scientist, I found the straight forward advice from the scientists to be the most useful take-home of the day. (After the free lunch of course!) The overall message is really quite simple:

  1. Don’t be afraid of media or public contact. Any publicity is good publicity and the general public has a short memory for your failures – even if you don’t.
  2. Be prepared to be harassed. If in a hostile environment, prepare your message in advance, focus on that and say only what you came there to say.
  3. Answer questions truthfully and to the best of your ability, but only if you want to. Learn to deflect ignorant/unwanted/irrelevant/provocative questions. You are not obliged to answer anything!
  4. Remember – you are the expert!

A full list of the advice compiled by Chris Peters (Sense about science) can be found at the bottom of this page, and also check out these tips in The Guardian. All good and sound advice, not only for communicating science .

The need to communicate science efficiently is certainly not a new issue. Popular Science journalism plays a large part in communicating science to a wider audience and indirectly plays a large part in promoting the interest in STEM (Science, Technology, engineering and Math) subjects. Just a few days ago,  The Wellcome Trust launched the second phase in their project to investigate the effects in Informal Science Learning, Science Learning+.

Let’s hope they are aware of projects like VOYS and Sense About Science, whose staff had the excellent habit of keeping the participants updated both before and after the workshop, filling my mail box with a bunch of useful links to projects, both their own and others, and tips of how to get involved.

See this page for some pictures, this page for some more pictures and a short summary of the day. Sense About Science Media Workshops are open to all postgraduates, are free to attend and are a recurring event since 2011. Do you want to attend of find out more – Click here!


 Speak about science in the media cheat sheet

–        Pick the message you want to get across and don’t be afraid to repeat yourself

–        Keep it brief & simple

–        Have your notes handy

–        Know when to say “I don’t know”

–        Avoid over-extrapolating too far beyond what the data say (in a paper).

–        Talk to your press office

–        Ask politely for recognition of your institute/team etc

–        Ensure the facts are conveyed (e.g. evolution) even if they’re obvious to you