member of the public speaking to 2 policemen about an incident

Working for a safer future

We're exploring how to protect the physical and electronic security of people, organisations and societies

The modern world presents countless security challenges –and our research across the Security and Risk theme is helping to tackle them.

New security challenges to individuals, societies and global stability are emerging, almost on a daily basis, adding to conventional, long-standing threats. These range from criminal violence to conflict, fraud and cybercrime; and from nuclear weapon proliferation to ‘lone-wolf’ terrorist acts.

In addition, risks from natural and human-caused disasters continue to disrupt lives and communities on every continent. Earthquakes, typhoons, flooding and drought break down the interconnections that make communal life possible.

The scope of the challenges we face is almost unlimited. The breadth of issues being addressed by experts across the university includes: cybercrime and protection of the elderly and vulnerable; monitoring of coastal erosion in Pacific Islands; flood risk across the UK; landslide and infrastructure risk in Dominica, following Hurricane Maria; policing and forensics; military drone use in Iraq, Syria and beyond; and insurgencies around the world, and more.

Under the leadership of Professor Peter Lee, the Security and Risk Theme is committed to generating new and innovative solutions to some of the most important challenges of our time.

 



The Peace, Conflict and Security Research Group


Working in tandem with the Risk and Security Theme, this interdisciplinary research group focuses on the intertwined fields of peace, security and conflict studies.

Drawing on expertise from across the University – including from our satellite team at RAF Cranwell – it offers an innovative forum for sharing research, knowledge and best research practice in the field of peace, security and conflict.


Colleagues in the group are working on areas as diverse as:

  • (inter alia) state, regime and human security
  • gender and security
  • remote warfare
  • terrorism and counter-terrorism studies
  • the changing nature of warfare
  • peacekeeping
  • cyber security and cyber crime
  • the security-development nexus
  • French security policy in Africa


The group has also established links with UK policymakers and think-tanks, such as Chatham House, and works closely with the Institute for Peace and Strategic Studies (University of Ibadan, Nigeria).


Discover our ground-breaking research

Watch two of our research impact case studies. Professor Peter Lee discusses ethics in relation to UK Reaper drone strikes, while Dr Caroline Cox explains how her research into the ivory trade plays a crucial role in saving elephants.

Bringing Ethics Training to Drone Pilots | Prof Peter Lee

Statistics show that UK Reaper drone operators launched 985 missiles or bombs against ISIS between August 2014 and December 2020 and yet Prof Peter Lee's research discovered that the majority of crew members had been given no formal ethics training.

Peter Lee, Professor of Applied Ethics: I stumbled into the field of drones and military drone use almost by accident.

I was teaching at the Air Force College when I was asked to write an article on the Reaper crew members.

One of the most interesting things for me was interviewing Reaper pilots who had dropped bombs from conventional aircraft, and then later they had dropped bombs or fired laser guided missiles from the Reaper.

What fascinated me was, the brain prompted a physical response that was exactly the same, both in a manned aircraft overhead or operating a Reaper from thousands of miles away.

Drone strike statistics show that UK Reaper drone operators launched 985 missiles or bombs against ISIS between August 2014 and December 2020.

I have a long history with the Royal Air Force, which started during university, and I left to become a chaplain.

I retrained and went back quite a few years later.

So from 2007 to 2008, I served as a Royal Air Force chaplain.

During that wartime period, I was a hospital chaplain for the casualties of the Iraq war.

And it had a life changing effect on me because they were asking me questions like, "Should we be at war?

Should should Prime Minister Tony Blair have sent us to war?" I realised I was woefully ill equipped to answer the questions, to address them even for myself.

And that prompted me to to undertake a doctorate, actually, in ethics and war.

That became the bedrock of my subsequent academic career.

For many years, drones have been controversial, both in public life and in the way they've been represented in the media.

And when I was asked to write about Reaper, the brief I was given was, "Can you write something about the ethics of it?

Is it fair?" Because the crew members can be thousands of miles away from the actual aircraft when they're dropping bombs or firing missiles.

There's no chance that the crews can be attacked because they're on other continents even.

Why, when people are so far away, are they affected?

And I came up with the phrase the distance paradox.

Despite being physically far away, and it can be thousands of miles, visually, emotionally, psychologically, especially with high definition cameras and screens, they have a very intimate view of, for example, a body.

They watch in intimate detail what happens to that body.

Many of the Reaper crew members interviewed did not have a clear ethics framework within which to make their kill or no-kill decisions.

Moral injury is a form of psychological harm that was first identified in the United States soldiers and Marines after the Vietnam War.

Psychologists couldn't work out exactly why some of these veterans were displaying symptoms and behaviour that did not fit with a clinical assessment of, say, post-traumatic stress disorder.

Moral injury is concerned with how an individual's core moral values, core moral self, can be harmed or violated by things that they see and do.

It's a difference between "is it legal?" and "is it right?" To give an example, a crew had been given legal authorisation to kill a Taliban bombing placer who was laying a roadside bomb dozens of miles from from from home.

It was freezing weather and he had a young son with him and the crew refused to take the shot on that occasion because if they killed the father, as night was falling, it's likely the son would have died of exposure.

While they were legally authorised to kill the Taliban fighter, they took the decision not to fire on ethical grounds that it would have this unintended consequence of potentially killing the son.

So by having good ethics training, it helps with decision making.

And I think it it at least partially helps to protect against moral injury.

Lee delivered train-the-trainer ethics teaching to both RAF Reaper Squadrons.

I believe my work has had impact in a number of ways.

After I made my parliamentary submission in 2017, by 2018 I was invited by the Royal Air Force to to go back to both squadrons to help introduce this ethics education.

And people have told me since that it really helped them with their decision making and for some how to live with some of the things they've seen and the powerlessness that they felt.

So it hasn't changed the world, but it's made a small difference to a number of people in this crucial role then that's really important to me.

Perhaps the thing that gives me the most professional satisfaction is looking at the research that started initially just to tell the story about Reaper personnel, then noticing this moral injury and other psychological effects and the need for ethics training and education and then seeing it extend to the police and then seeing new opportunities.

And that's what makes me passionate about it, because there are so many others in fields where they are affected psychologically, emotionally and in other ways.

And if I can help others to come through that and work more effectively and live more effectively, then that will be a life and career well spent.

The Fight Against the Ivory Trade | Dr Caroline Cox

Dr Caroline Cox has always loved elephants but it was only after she learned of the critical flaws in the legislation around the sale of ivory that she saw how her research could play a crucial part in the battle to save them.

Dr Caroline Cox, Senior Lecturer at Portsmouth Law School:

I've always loved wildlife. Always.

And in 2005, my husband and I went to Southern Africa and had five days on safari in the Kruger. It was wonderful.

We were out one day with our Ranger and the Ranger says, "Everybody stay very quiet." I was like, "Oh my goodness, what's going to happen next?" And almost imperceivably at first, you could feel the ground start to shake.

And over the hill came a herd of 26 elephants.

It was absolutely astounding and I don't think I've ever been so moved by a sight in all my life.

Wild elephant numbers have dropped by 62% over the last decade, and an estimated 100 African elephants are killed each day by poachers seeking ivory.

I was having dinner with my husband, Alister.

Alister is an antiques expert, he's an antiques valuer, and he was telling me about ivory that was coming to him that he felt was illegal to sell.

Ivory in the UK can be sold provided it came from an elephant that died before 1947.

And the question is, of course, how do you know when the elephant died?

The burden was on the seller to certify that the item they were selling was legal to sell and from looking at it, tell you whether it was pre or post 1947, and that is almost impossible to do.

That really started me thinking about how the law could be changed to protect elephants from poaching, because poaching in the southern African states is a massive problem still now.

My research, of course, started some time before the Ivory Act came into force and actually started to get some momentum.

On 6 October 2017, six months after Dr Caroline Cox's "Ivory Report" was published, the British Government launched a consultation into the sale of ivory in the UK.

In 2018, it was kind of like a light bulb moment for the Conservative government and they decided they were going to consult on the continuing trade in ivory in the UK.

I responded to the consultation process on behalf of the Ivory Project and I'm really pleased to say they listened to some of it, which was amazing.

There is now a type of ivory passport, which is what I'd recommended, to enable it to be sold, and that certificate stays with the item forever.

It means that we are going to see an end to at least in the real world, sale of ivory unless it's got a certificate anymore.

Do I think it will end poaching?

No.

My fear is that ivory will stop being sold in auction rooms and it will stop being sold in antique shops and it will go online where the regulation is just not so tight.

I could go onto eBay right now and show you hundreds, literally hundreds of pieces of ivory being sold.

But it's not being sold being called ivory.

It will be ox bone, it will be bovine bone.

I realised very quickly that actually things were changing online and it wasn't so much about the buzz word as the photography.

So how was I going to manage to look through thousands of photos of bone and ivory and one by one try and pick which is which?

It's almost impossible.

I really needed some help to do that.

And at that point we met Simone.

Simone is in his final year of his Ph.D.

He's a cosmologist, but he knows an awful lot about machine learning.

Machine learning is a subfield of artificial intelligence in which the algorithm or the model tries to learn from the data.

The computer vision algorithm has exactly the same approach that is used in self-driving cars, in which the goal is then to differentiate between people, between trees, between traffic lights.

And we are trying to do the basically the same thing, but in a more, much more specific way, we are just trying to distinguish bones from ivory objects.

These are two example of the things that we are trying to distinguish.

So this is an ivory object while this is made of bones.

You will be able to tell the difference if you get very close, because in this object there are present the Schrager lies in the very bottom while here there are the signature of the blood vessels that are inside the bones, that are this black spot that you can see.

They look very similar so it's going to be very hard to distinguish them.

We have already proved that with some machine learning approach we would be able to distinguish with a certain level of accuracy between the two.

And this can be incredibly useful, for example, for a police officer because that will discriminate automatically which of the images that they are finding online we will need to prosecute.

With something very simple we can achieve very big results.

The Ivory Project has played a small but significant role in ending the sale of ivory in the United Kingdom.

And that's an amazing thing to be able to say.

I know that we haven't solved the problem worldwide.

I know there are still poachers out there, but I've stopped the trade in the UK and that makes me feel good.

I think our next steps are going to be developing Simone's machine learning tool, his algorithm, to really perfect this.

If we can get the machine learning point to where we're able to go to somebody like eBay and say, "This is the tool you guys need" and if they could take this on board, we could stop the trade in illegal ivory at an instant online.

That would be incredible.

There's something about elephants, isn't there?

We have hunted them, we've used their ivory for millennia.

So for me, they embody the ability to keep going in the face of adversity.

It's extraordinary.

And I just find there's something incredible about that.

They're moving!


Related research areas of expertise

The cross-disciplinary, cross-faculty Security and Risk Theme overlaps with many of our research areas of expertise, including the following:


Research features

Explore our features for a snapshot of our recent research work in this research theme.

News, blogs and podcasts

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