The term “digital borders” has been coined by experts to describe borders whose infrastructure progressively depends on automated algorithmic decision-making systems, machine learning, predictive analytics, and related digital technologies. Those tools aim to create systems of facial recognition, identification documents, ground sensors, biometric databases, and even visa and asylum decision-making processes.

As a result of the pandemic and an increasing tendency towards “contactless biometrics” technology, the digitization of borders has accelerated and so justified to combat the spread of the virus in the name of public safety. According to a report of the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and related intolerance for the United Nations Human Rights Council, digital borders could intensify the racially discriminatory operation of borders, especially if digital technologies are being deployed in the border immigration context by private corporate entities when supported by governments without adequate mitigation strategies in place. Such an experimental approach can have unprecedented dangerous consequences for the data subjects. As a result, migrants, refugees, and stateless persons are being deprived of dignity and fundamental human agency as large amounts of data are extracted from individuals often on exploitative conditions which, furthermore, might result in grave human rights violations.

Border policing in the European Union (EU)

At EU borders, the mechanism used for policing is operated by Frontex, which has run operations of the European Border Surveillance system (“Eurosur”) since 2013. Frontex is a framework for the exchange of information and coordination between member states in the EU. Their goal is to prevent any irregular migration and border crime by utilising digital technologies to predict, control and monitor traffic across EU borders. Among other things, Frontex deploys surveillance drones in the Mediterranean Sea to notify the Libyan coastguard to intercept refugee and migrant boats and return migrants to Libya where they face imminent human rights violations in Libyan detention centers for migrants. Also, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (“OHCHR”) has raised its concerns against the coordinated failure and resistance to aid refugees and migrants in the Mediterranean, which is one of the deadliest migration routes in the world.

A deepening of xenophobic rhetoric by way of technology

The most recent use of digital technologies in this form runs the risk of having prejudicial effects, as often its design and utilization is a reflection and reinforcement of prevailing political, social, and economic tendencies. For instance, if political tendencies lean towards nationalism, it could have profound racially discriminatory consequences for migrants and refugees. The perception that refugees and migrants are “threats” to national security has encouraged the implementation of digital technologies to promote and develop racially discriminatory and xenophobic ideologies. Nevertheless, there are also cases in which humanitarian and bureaucratic efficiency is purely pursued without necessary human rights safeguards, resulting in serious human rights violations with unfortunate consequences. For instance, studies have shown that “digital borders” along the US-Mexico border have led to an increase in migrant deaths instead of being more human-oriented because most irregular migrants were forced to pursue more dangerous routes across the two States.

The ominous role of private corporations

An important facet of digital borders that is central to its human rights landscape, is the role of private corporations. Most Governments continuously more rely on private-sector corporations to manage mass migration of people by way of new surveillance and tracking digital tools in a possible attempt to abdicate responsibility for potential human rights violations. The relationship between border policing, financial interest, and militarisation has been termed the “Border Industrial Complex” (BIC). These corporations play exercising a significant influence on international and domestic policy development, particularly with the decision-making process about the governance of the digital border industry.

BIC companies include private and public entities involved in border policing, detention, surveillance, and transportation of migrants. BIC has been supported by heavy lobbying to enable a system of militarised borders along with the criminalization of migration and the erosion of the basic human rights of migrants. A recent report from Preventable Surprises (6th discussion note dated January 2021) shows how the deep influence of government policy on migrant detention and the use of mass surveillance technologies at borders is evidence of the lobbying capacity of both public and private entities across BIC industries.

In some countries such as Hungary, Greece, and Latvia, for example, the EU funded a pilot project by a company named iBorderCtrl. The EU’s Horizon 2020’s iBorderCtrl is an “Intelligent Portable Control System” that “aims to enable faster and thorough border control for third-country nationals crossing the land borders of the EU Member States” using hardware and software technologies that seek to automate border surveillance. The company introduced AI-powered lie detectors at border checkpoints in airports to monitor people’s faces for signs of lying and to then flag individuals for further screening by a human officer. This system was reportedly tested in 2019 at the Serbian-Hungarian border and subsequently failed. iBorderCtrl illustrates how private companies and governments experiment with various forms of surveillance technologies on asylum seekers based on scientifically questionable researches and suspicious grounds.

The future of digital border policing

Governments, and to a lesser extent private and public corporations, still have international human rights responsibilities and obligations to prevent, combat and reform racial discrimination. In the realm of border and immigration enforcement, the prevention of human rights violations might necessitate the abolition or outright ban of some unfit-for-purpose technologies as the operators thereof struggle to control and mitigate their harmful effects. There is not only a conceptual but also an institutional intersection between policing and migration. The apparent conflation of security and migration as a result of worrying xenophobic and racially discriminatory rhetoric in society has the potential to jeopardize an adequate use of data gathered by mass surveillance technologies.

By the way it looks, such digital technologies are most of the time not working for the individuals' benefit, but against it. As citizens of the western world, one of the reasons behind the (ab)use of digital technologies for border migration has also been caused by rising sentiments of radical conservatory and nationalistic politics, which is alarming (especially in the European continent). There is no doubt it is still our duty as members of society to carefully observe this trend, actively challenge it, and make our governments accountable.

A cura di Mignon Van der Westhuizen