Countering security threats

Ella Rhodes reports on a new research centre at Lancaster University.

Lancaster University is to lead a UK centre for the development and use of economic and social science research to understand, mitigate and counter security threats. The Centre for Research and Evidence on Security Threats (CREST) will bring together researchers at the Universities of Birmingham, Cranfield, Lancaster, Portsmouth and the West of England to form a national hub for independent research, training and collaboration.

The Centre, commissioned by the ESRC, has a focus on conducting research to inform approaches to countering security threats in the modern world. CREST has been funded for three years with £4.35 million from the UK security and intelligence agencies and a further £2.2m invested by the founding institutions and will initially fund 13 PhD students working across all five universities.

Its Director, Professor Paul Taylor (Lancaster University), said the group aimed to synthesise and communicate psychological research, along with work from other disciplines, to those dealing with security challenges. It will do so by publishing a range of media from briefing notes to academic articles, by running an extensive programme of workshops and training events, and by collaborating closely with governments, think tanks, charities and businesses. Professor Taylor said that as well as commissioning new research, the Centre would bring together research in five main areas: the exploration of the emotional and ideological narratives of activism and violence; how extremist ideologies are transmitted through and countered by communities and social groups; online behaviour; eliciting information; and protective security and risk assessment.

Explaining where psychology could be useful in the face of increasingly challenging and ever-changing security threats, Professor Taylor said: ‘First, psychologists can help us understand the individual and social factors that lead people to commit acts of terrorism, as well as what might lead them to desist. Second, psychologists can help better understand the nature of decisions and team working in fast-moving, high-risk security investigations, as a way to make practice more efficient and improve the welfare of personnel. Third, psychologists can research when, where and how people cooperate, which provides the evidence base for developing, for example, interview techniques that enhance memory recall and make deception easier to spot. Fourth, drawing on social and organisational psychology, researchers help understand how to create a work culture that encourages employees to uphold good security practices.’

CREST’s publications so far include papers on witness memory in a scenario involving firearms, a review into cognitive lie detection and how one’s ability to fabricate a cover story depends on experience in similar contexts. To follow the work of the Centre see @crest_research on Twitter.

Meanwhile, psychologists at the University of Stirling have announced a five-year project to develop the next generation of face-recognition technology, driven by global security concerns and potential commercial benefits. Team lead Professor Peter Hancock said: ‘Humans are surprisingly poor at identifying faces they don’t know, even professionals such as passport controllers have difficulty matching people to their photographs.

But we are much better than machines at recognising familiar faces, and the challenge we are undertaking is to gain an understanding of what the process is that allows us to do this.’

Funded by the Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council, the project will also include researchers from the University of Surrey and Imperial College London, international experts in face biometrics and video analysis, the Home Office, the BBC and industry groups including IBM. 

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