The European Commission’s Research Executive Agency has come under questioning from judges at the Court of Justice of the EU as part of a case focusing on why the agency refuses to disclose documents on the controversial ‘iBorderCtrl’ project.
The EU-funded iBorderCtrl technology, which uses advanced artificial intelligence to analyse micro-expressions, has been tested on various borders in the EU. One of its uses is to detect whether an individual is lying or not when presented with a series of questions.
Pirate MEP Patrick Breyer is seeking an order from the EU’s highest general court obliging the Commission’s research agency to publicly release documents related to the project, after successive freedom of information requests went unheeded.
On Friday (5 February), judges at the Luxembourg-based EU court heard both sides of the story. For his part, Breyer was satisfied with the line of questioning from the ECJ, informing EURACTIV that the judges had been “methodical and rigorous” in their approach.
The research agency apparently refuses to disclose specific documents related to the project, because certain ‘commercial interests’ could be compromised should the documents be made public.
The documents are believed to contain specific information on the algorithms used for deception detection purposes, which Patrick Breyer says could indicate a serious encroachment of fundamental rights.
The Pirate MEP essentially wants to see the judges prioritise the public interest in disclosing these documents, over the impetus to protect commercial interests.
“They are saying that these files could be of interest to competitors in the field. If the research agency has nothing to hide, why should there be the reluctance to disclose these documents?” Breyer told EURACTIV.
Judges are also said to have probed the research agency last week on why the disclosure of the documents could be a risk to the reputation of the companies involved in the project, should the Commission believe that the project is ethically sound.
For their part, a Commission spokesperson told EURACTIV that “the specific application of any future technology will always have to respect EU and national law and safeguards, including on fundamental rights and the EU rules on the protection of personal data.”
“As regards transparency, the Commission always encourages projects to publicise as much as possible their results,” the spokesperson added, before highlighting the fact that the iBorderCtrl project has appointed an ethics adviser to oversee the implementation of the ethical aspects of research.
A satisfactory ethics check of the iBorderCtrl project was already conducted in March 2019.
EURACTIV was informed that the performance of the newly appointed ethics adviser is monitored closely by the Commission’s research executive agency and “carefully analysed in cooperation with external independent experts during the technical review meetings.”
While no dates have thus far been set for the decision from the EU general court, Breyer hopes that judges will see the merit in his argument.
“I’m feeling confident there’s a good chance the EU judges will recognise the value of ruling in the public interest on this case, rather than the more ethically questionable position of protecting commercial interests,” he said.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]