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The depoliticization of technology cannot solve the EU’s border security problem

Blog piece by Sarah Perret

Originally published on the International Affairs Blog via Medium. The original blog piece can be found here.

Since the early 2000’s, following implementation of the Lisbon Agenda, the European Union has developed common Research and Development (R&D) funding programmes, as part of the European Research Area. One of the main focuses of this investment of billions of euros has been on border security and digital development of data gathering, circulation and analysis ‘for a safer Europe’. Part of this is making all EU border management, security and migration databases interoperable by biometrically interconnecting identification and information data into one ‘Large-Scale IT System. According to the European Union Agency for the Operational Management of Large-Scale IT Systems in the Area of Freedom, Security and Justice (eu-LISA) this ‘technical’ evolution ‘will bring improved access to information stored in EU information systems and identity management at an EU level.’

In reality, this reconfiguration of biometric data management, draws on a very political understanding of what border security constitutes. While scholars and practitioners have made important contributions to identifying the political and ethical effects of these biometric devices for data gathering, very little has been said about the structural conditions under which they are designed. Questions remain unanswered over which actors are involved, in which contexts and according to whose interests biometric data gathering takes place, — and the limits this imposes. My research explores what is happening when certain understandings of security provision are implemented and presented as purely technical solutions, and what the consequences of this are for individuals, such as refugees and migrants caught up in the world of border security. Researching ‘technical’ responses

Comparing former R&D EU projects such as the 7th Framework Programme (Fp7) on security at the border with the eu-LISA missions, I identify who defines what border security means and how knowledge and non-knowledge — i.e. what is unknown, overlooked or ignored, are produced. I thus look upstream at the ‘political economy of knowledge’ studying what the EU decides to fund when it comes to R&D projects, and how this influences the political and practical choices it makes in terms of structuring border security management through eu-LISA.

My approach mobilizes a previous database built with my colleague Médéric Martin-Mazé from 41 Fp7 projects focused on border security. It uses Multiple Correspondence Analysis to analyse the descriptions used in those projects and in the eu-LISA documents. I first focus on EU research projects which seek to create devices for ‘filtering’ mostly human border crossings, at airports or sea ports, for instance. I then identify the types of actors — public or private, NGOs, academics, or military institutions — who have contributed to these projects to identify whose voices have been included and whose haven’t.

Second, I analyse how narratives around the idea of ‘threat’ and ‘datafication’ — the process that transforms our everyday lives into quantifiable digital data — underpin certain understandings of security, as well as looking at who contributes the most to forge these comprehensions.

Finally, I look at the eu-LISA programme and its interoperability objectives of rendering more ‘effective and efficient’ the circulation of personal data in the EU, tracing where there are overlaps or an absence of knowledge in comparison to Fp7 projects, in order to identify what kind of knowledge is absent or ignored. I argue that studying R&D programmes funded by the EU provides a significant insight into the knowledge gaps that will undermine future EU border security governance. Why ‘technical responses’ are deeply political

My preliminary findings demonstrate how this frenzy of continually collecting more and more data on individuals as ‘objects’ of information has two main consequences. Firstly, this way of presenting digitized data collection as a technical and neutral solution, de-politicizes border control and surveillance, despite the fact that this involves personal, biographical, or bodily information — which is highly political. It also influences our perception of EU border security and discriminates against certain types of travellers and migrants such as asylum seekers — again with political consequences. This narrowly conceived border security system is the result of overly focusing on certain types of knowledge and rationalities in the absence of others. These so-called ‘technical’ and ‘neutral’ solutions are then adopted by the migration and security industry, as well as by travellers and migrants themselves — for example by agreeing to give their fingerprints for accessing freedom of movement, thus perpetuating ‘securitizing’ conceptions of the migration issue.

By failing to take into account its own political dimension, the ‘datafication’ of security does not improve or change the previous limits that this ‘technical’ process tries to solve. On the contrary, it reproduces and stabilizes the status quo. The question is now whether these are just knowledge gaps that have not yet been filled or if there is a ‘strategic ignorance’ at play underpinning these choices.


Dr Sarah Perret is a Research Associate in International Relations and Political Science at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. Her research focuses on security policies through counterterrorism, border control, national legislative actions, and the use of new technologies.

New Voices in Global Security is a collaborative blog series between the School of Security Studies, King’s College London, and International Affairs. Drawing on cutting edge research, the blog series highlights diverse empirical, methodological and theoretical approaches to understanding global security and engages with questions of equality, diversity and inclusion within the discipline. Contributions are based on the New Voices event series — organized and chaired by Dr Amanda Chisholm, School Equality, Diversity and Inclusion lead — which promotes the research of PhD students and Early Career Researchers (ECRs) working both within and beyond the School of Security Studies. All views expressed are individual not institutional.



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