TRUST – Tracing Risk and Uncertainty in Security Technology

Principle Investigator

Dr Michael Bourne

Research Institution

Queens University Belfast

Project Summary

The TRUST project explored how new security technologies are developed in practice. This included an ethnographic study of the HANDHOLD project, an EU-funded project developing an integrated portable Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and Explosive detection device. It also examined how understandings of risk, uncertainty, and security shape processes of technology development involving academic and SMEs and end-users. The project focused, in particular, on how issues of risk, uncertainty, and failure are distributed and managed and how they shape the practice of technology development.

The TRUST project developed significant new knowledge that indicates that far from being a linear application of scientific knowledge to security problems, engineering and security practices are co-constitutive within the daily practices, materials and imaginations of scientists and engineers.

Security is translated into specific device development practices through the interactions of engineers and end-users, but also through the operation of forms of imagination and anticipation.

Security device development is shaped by wider institutional forces and logics of pragmatism, profit, risk-mitigation, publication, knowledge development and others that combine with, and sometimes outweigh, logics of security (designations of threat, anticipated bordering practices and environments).

These forces and logics combine in highly contingent ways that mean that the laboratories of security device development are key sites within which security practices are constituted such that sovereign decisions at the border are distributed into the laboratories of engineers.

More specifically, the focus on risk, uncertainty and failure opened new research questions and methods for tracing the co-constitution of science and security in daily practices. Risk, for instance, is understood and practiced not through exceptional security logics, nor through formalised quantification, but rather is ever-present and dispersed in the daily practices of engineers. Here, experience and tacit knowledge shape risk assessment and also form the central activity of risk management.

Likewise, while technology development is inherently uncertain, uncertainty was reduced both by experience and by imaginations (of border guards, of sniffer dogs, of criminals and terrorists). In this process the failure is reconceived as the means of success.  


The research returned a number of findings and recommendations for enhancing communication and understanding between government, engineers and end-users involved in the development of security technologies, and for enhancing common understandings of risk, uncertainty and failure.

These findings were detailed in a report to government and key stakeholders and have been shared through two interactive workshops.

Contact Information

 For further information email Dr Bourne at