Regulating Border Tech Experiments in a Hostile World

We are facing a growing panopticon of technology that limits people’s movements, their ability to reunite with their families, and at the worst of times, their ability to stay alive.  Power and knowledge monopolies are allowed to exist because there is no unified global regulatory regime governing the use of new technologies, creating laboratories for high-risk experiments with profound impacts on people’s lives.

We are facing a growing panopticon of technology that limits people’s movements, their ability to reunite with their families, and at the worst of times, their ability to stay alive. 

Borders are the setting of various migration management experiments supported and actively encouraged by the EU, codified in its Migration Pact, and reconfirmed at various press conferences with EU officials. These policies and conferences are replete with explicit messaging around the ‘management’ of migration, a ‘Europeanised’ deportations process, protecting the border, and strengthening the work of Frontex, the EU’s border force. One of the ways to strengthen its migration management machine that the EU is increasingly exploring is various technological experiments. Technologies such as automated decision-making, biometrics, and unpiloted drones are increasingly controlling migration and affecting millions of people on the move. This allure of using technological interventions at and around the border highlights the very real impacts on people’s lives, exacerbated by a lack of meaningful governance and oversight mechanisms of these technological experiments. 

EDRi’s recent report from November 2020, Technological Testing Grounds: Migration Management Experiments and Reflections from the Ground Up, attempts to interrogate the growing panopticon of surveillance and automation, foregrounding the lived experiences of people on the move in order to highlight the all-encompassing and unregulated nature of these technological experiments on the frontiers of the border industrial complex. Our reflections highlight the need to recognise how uses of migration management technology perpetuate harms, exacerbate systemic discrimination and render certain communities as technological testing grounds. 

One strand of this story takes place in Greece because it is a frontier space for migration, and it also happens to be a technological testing ground– a sandbox. In September 2020, Petra Molnar, EDRi’s former Mozilla Fellow working with the Migration and Technology Monitor, went to the ruins of Moria camp, one of the biggest refugee camps in Europe on the island of Lesbos, in the aftermath of a huge fire that displaced thousands of people. She witnessed, in effect, the creation of a new camp from the ground up. The building of this camp on a barren windswept peninsula is paradoxically coupled with an obsession to introduce more and more draconian technology and surveillance equipment to manage migration and control people who are experiencing the harmful sharp edges of this technological testing ground. 

She has been back since, as recently as a few weeks ago, and these issues remain live. On Friday, March 26th, 2021, Frontex put out a press release, proudly stating it commissioned a fulsome report from the Rand Corporation on various uses of Artificial Intelligence in border operations, including: “automated border control, object recognition to detect suspicious vehicles or cargo and the use of geospatial data analytics for operational awareness and threat detection.” In Greece, the 5 proposed Multi-Purpose Reception and Identification Centres (MPRICs) on Lesvos, Samos, Chios, Leros, and Kos have all been reported to include “camera surveillance with motion analysis algorithms monitoring the behaviour and movement of centre residents.” These camps are generously funded by the EU. 

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However, Greece is just one of the many locations where technological experimentation at the border is given free rein and ongoing work attempts to knit together the tapestry of the increasingly powerful and global border industrial complex which legitimises technosolutionism at the expense of human rights and dignity. 

These technological experiments also do not occur in a vacuum. Instead, powerful actors – and indeed the private sector – increasingly sets the stage of what technology should be developed and deployed, while communities experiencing the sharp edges of this innovation are consistently left out of the discussion. 

These power and knowledge monopolies are allowed to exist because there is no unified global regulatory regime governing the use of new technologies, creating laboratories for high-risk experiments with profound impacts on people’s lives. This type of experimentation also foregrounds certain framings over others that prioritise certain types of interventions (i.e. ‘catching liars at the border’ vs ‘catching racist border guards’). Why is it a more urgent priority to deport people faster rather than use technological interventions to catch mistakes that are made in improperly refused immigration and refugee applications? 

However, some interesting governance mechanisms are coming down the pipe. With this week’s release of the European Union’s artificial intelligence regulation, concerns remain around the ways in which high-risk applications of automated decision-making contexts are demarcated, including possible carve-outs for various uses under Article 4(2) exemption for public security. Unfortunately, once again there is a lack of intersectional engagement with the historical ways that systemic racism and discrimination are perpetrated by various technologies, particularly against people on the move and communities crossing borders. 

Attempting to understand how border tech experiments are playing out is an attempt to highlight how power operates in society – and how technology reinforces hierarchies of oppression. Technology is not neutral but is wielded by powerful actors against communities historically made marginalised – including people on the move, who are trying to make a new life in a world that is increasingly hostile towards them.

Follow EDRi’s ongoing work on the impacts of migration management technologies and keep up with the Migration and Technology Monitor.

(Contribution by: Petra Molnar, EDRi’s former Mozilla Fellow working with the Migration and Technology Monitor)

(Image credit: Kenya-Jade Pinto)