Malta leading EU survey on online surveillance and privacy
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Malta leading EU survey on online surveillance and privacy

The revelations by Edward Snowden on secret surveillance on online communications by the American National Security Agency (NSA) and the stern reaction from those who were targeted, including senior politicians and institutions in the EU, have turned the spotlight on the issue of surveillance and security of online communication.

This issue also touches Maltese internet users as companies like Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Apple were mentioned by Mr Snowden in his claims and Maltese users avail themselves of online communication services provided by these American companies.

However, the Maltese are a little less concerned about online security than other Europeans.

A recent Eurobarometer survey revealed that the Maltese are less concerned about misuse of personal data and the security of online payments than the European average. Their major concern is falling victim to online credit card fraud – rather than identity theft and their social media or e-mail account being hacked.

The Maltese, though unwillingly involved in the online surveillance issue, are not sitting pretty doing nothing.

Indeed the University of Malta is leading an EU-wide survey about citizens’ opinions towards surveillance for fighting crime.

A team led by Noellie Brockdorff from the Department of Cognitive Science in the Faculty of Media and Knowledge Sciences of the University of Malta is coordinating research about the views of EU citizens towards the cost, convenience, and success of surveillance in the fighting of terrorism and crime.

This research is part of a project named “Respect”, a €4.3 million collaborative project with researchers from 19 institutions in 16 countries that is co-funded by the EU within the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7).

The team, which also includes Sandra Appleby-Arnold and Marco Montalto, has just gone live with a comprehensive online survey in all official languages of the European Union targeting citizens from all across Europe and all segments of society. It is the first time that such large-scale research is conducted in this area, with the intention of identifying the possible effect of cultural influences on the acceptance of surveillance systems and procedures.

Convenience and cost effectiveness are understood as the two key considerations for security forces in the public as well as in the private sector when it comes to deciding which surveillance technologies to use and which to avoid.

Motivations may be different, but once these technologies are implemented, they increasingly allow police and security forces to go beyond the data they have gathered directly but to also tap into data gathered and stored by private companies. These surveillance technologies are deemed to be “in balance” if they are implemented in a way which respects individual privacy while still maximising convenience, profitability, public safety and security.

According to the project partners, Respecy seeks to investigate if the current and foreseeable implementation of surveillance technologies is indeed ‘in balance’, and how such balance – or lack of balance – is perceived by European citizens. By reviewing the effectiveness, social and economic costs of surveillance, and determining the legal basis for these surveillance systems, the results will provide a basis for developing European guidelines and regulation that balance citizens’ privacy and security concerns.

The online survey launched by the University of Malta plays a key role in this project. It represents a real opportunity for citizens to influence the way things are run, since the results will be taken into consideration when preparing policy briefs to the European Commission about the implementation, use, and limits, of surveillance. The survey is available at www.bit.ly/surveyrespectproject.

The Respect project, respectproject.eu, commenced in February 2012 and is expected to run until May 2015. The project’s overall coordinator is Joe Cannataci and the team of researchers in the Faculty of Media and Knowledge Sciences at the University of Malta contributing to this project includes Alex Pastukhov from the Department of Information Policy and Governance.

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