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Tracking Migrants With Drones, Biometrics and Tags

Governments Turn to Tech for Border Control

By Robert Bateman

From GPS ankle tags to automated drones and biometric surveillance, governments worldwide are turning to increasingly intrusive technical solutions to manage migration.

Digital Privacy News spoke to experts in the United Kingdom, the European Union, and Canada, who expressed deep concern about the impact of such technologies on migrants and refugees.

“Migration control is now one of the key drivers of surveillance worldwide,” said Antonella Napolitano, network coordinator at U.K.-based NGO Privacy International.

“Some of the most sophisticated tech on the market is now being aimed squarely at tracking migrants, fostering a narrative that criminalizes people in a vulnerable condition, rather than protecting them,” Napolitano told Digital Privacy News.

Napolitano said this increasingly technical approach was changing the nature of border management.

“Borders are not only those we can see.” she said, “we are witnessing an increasing externalization of migration controls with the transfer of border management to third countries, and digital borders, like portals and databases,” she said.

“Migrants are bearing the burden of the new systems and losing agency in their migration experience,” Napolitano continued, “particularly when their fate is being put in the hands of systems driven by data processing and so-called tech innovations.”

U.K.: GPS Tagging

On Monday, a coalition of human rights groups published an open letter to the U.K. government, condemning a new scheme whereby GPS tracking tags are used to monitor people on immigration bail.

The human rights campaigners said that the new scheme, which replaces an older policy that used radio-frequency tags, represents “a significant interference with individual liberty and privacy.”

“Tagging is often seen as ‘softer’ and ‘humane’ approach when compared to physical confinement in four walls and restrictions imposed on liberty,” said Monish Bhatia, lecturer in criminology at the University of Birkbeck. “However, tagging itself is equally confining.” 

Bhatia cited his research among people who had been subjected to tagging, who, he said, found the experience to be “dehumanizing, degrading and debilitating, and an extension… of physical confinement.”

Bhatia said that the move from radio-frequency to GPS tagging would give the government “access to 24/7 geo-location data,” and had ”huge implications for privacy and human rights.”

“The fact that private security companies and government departments will have access to this data should ring alarm bells,” Bhatia said.

EU-Funded Border Drones

The EU is another region where emerging technology is being used to control migration. The bloc has funded projects aiming to monitor and control people attempting to enter Europe via the Greek-Turkish border. 

“Violent border technologies like long-range acoustic devices, drones, and various automated decision-making projects support an environment which is already rife with human rights abuses,” said Petra Molnar, associate director of the Refugee Law Lab at York University.

Since May 2017, the EU has funded the ROBORDER (Autonomous Swarm of Heterogeneous Robots for Border Surveillance) project, which aims to create “a fully-functional autonomous border surveillance system” using drones.

“Unfortunately, the EU is increasingly turning to the siren-call of techno-solutionism, at the expense of humane migration policies and practices,” Molnar told Digital Privacy News.

“Many of these technological interventions run the risk of furthering discrimination and adversely impact privacy and data protection,” she said.

Biometric Border Surveillance in Canada

Canada has also signaled an intention to increase the use of surveillance technology at its borders.

On June 7, the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) said it had an “urgent need to establish a biometrics strategy” — and called for international companies to assist its establishment of an Office of Biometrics and Identity Management.

But Sharon Polsky, president of the Privacy and Access Council of Canada, was skeptical that the scheme would benefit Canadians.

“Whether it is the border, or COVID, or anything else — it’s a matter of ‘follow the money,’” Polsky told Digital Privacy News. “Because innovation begets employment, which begets tax dollars.”

Polsky said public authorities were being “pushed… to adopt and embrace technology — as if technology is going to be the answer to every ill that exists. So they’re moving forward with these surveillance systems and biometrics.”

The CBSA invited 15 companies, including Accenture, Deloitte, and PriceWaterHouse Coopers, to enter bids for the contract.

“These companies have a corporate responsibility to improve their bottom line—not to improve your privacy or mine,” Polsky said.