International Center for Ethics in the Sciences and Humanities (IZEW)


How Smart Is ‘Smart Security’? Exploring Data Subjectivity and Resistance

This case study seeked to examine ethical and human rights implications of ’smart security’ systems that operate based on population data at scale. The main point of inquiry was the qualitatively new level of potential discrimination through automated algorithmic analyses of large datasets and the possibility to enforce human rights by challenging security decisions based on algorithms.

Final Report

The final report is published under a Creative Commons License (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) and freely available.


‘Smart security’ is currently being used as an umbrella term that embraces several initiatives proposed by the aviation industry in order to enhance security procedures at airports. The idea of smarter security opposes the traditional screening framework of passenger security at airports which enacts a one-size-fits-all approach in order to detect dangerous items that might threaten flight safety and security. Recently however, the security industry claims that smart solutions could provide better security, less intrusive screening, and better cost efficiency by employing tailored security procedures based on individual data-driven risk assessment of passengers and corresponding different levels of security screening.

As smart security solutions are currently still under development, this report analyses potential human rights problems connected to a broader implementation of smart security routines in a timely fashion. Constituent elements of smart security, such as computer-based sorting of individuals into risk-groups and algorithms preparing or taking decisions on passengers’ mobility, can have severe consequences. Critical questions to be asked include: Who is accountable for smart security decisions? Is it possible to appeal against such decisions? How dangerous is the data-driven approach with regard to structural discrimination and equality of all passengers?

We review and summarise the state of the art in the field of data-driven risk analysis and analyse eight interviews that we have conducted with representatives of European aviation associations, state authorities and the civil society. Bearing in mind the human rights implications of smart security, the report identifies six central policy gaps, issues recommendations to address them and provides a basis for a much needed public debate on smart security.

Principal Investigators

Research Associates