Digital Society Forum Digital Society Forum
Dossier 19/02/2014

Records and checks: migrants and the digital border

In an era of biometric passports and national and European databases, crossing a border is no longer just a physical process for migrants; they now need to cross a new immaterial, smart border designed to protect the territory from “individuals that pose a risk”.

This digital border shows that immigration is perceived by countries or communities of states as a potential threat, requiring both control and proactive measures.

Since it is not subject to geographical boundaries, the digital border starts in the country of origin, in consulates and in airports. Its base is located in the information systems held by developed countries. Europe’s information system is made up of several databases, including the SIS (Schengen Information System), which stores information on visas and the purpose of trips made by nationals from outside the Schengen area, and whose main aim is to flag up illegal immigrants before they arrive in Schengen territory; Eurodac, which records asylum seekers’ fingerprints in an effort to prevent fraud and repeat applications; FADO (False and Authentic Documents Online), which facilitates the exchange of information on false documents that are in circulation; and lastly the VIS (Visa Information System), which checks the validity of visas and, in some consulates, includes taking biometric information from applicants.

Potential risk score

This complex network of databases is complemented by a more direct check on migrants, which is carried out when the visa application is made, when an application is submitted to renew a residence card or in airports. It involves examining the purpose of migrants’ trips, their routes and their occupation in and relations with the destination country. In addition to this questioning, travellers go through a “body language check”, which consists of interpreting their expressions and movements or checking for the presence of diseases through thermal imaging cameras. This huge collection of data serves one purpose: to detect people who pose a risk before they enter a country. It is normally at this stage that data mining companies get involved, cross-referencing all the available information thanks to powerful algorithms, which assign migrants a potential risk score.

This is a vague concept which covers anything and everything, ranging from illegal immigration to terrorism-related risk and including ID fraud and organised crime. Private companies such as Sabre, Amadeus, Galileo and Wordspam allow data and its results to be exchanged between the United States and the European Union with the aim of combating illegal immigration and of “predicting” if a traveller may be considered a potential terrorist. Ultimately, the use of the expression “person that poses a risk” is a practical catch-all which enables databases, held by the police or the intelligence services or which are used to manage migrant and refugee flows, to be merged.

Panopticon and banopticon

As a result, immigration is no longer considered an asset but a potential threat that must be brought under control through, essentially, disproportionate measures. This system is referred to as the banopticon by the researcher Didier Bigo. The term is derived from the concept of the panopticon, developed by the philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who imagined a prison in which a guard could observe all the prisoners without being seen. The concept was then taken up by the philosopher Michel Foucault to denote a discipline and security-centred society which monitors the whole population. In the case of migration, banopticism is the process of monitoring specific groups with the aim of excluding them, unlike panopticism, whose aim is to monitor everyone. With the banopticon, a potential enemy can be pinpointed, often taking the form of an Islamic terrorist or a trafficker, and authorities can take exceptional measures to establish new borders and put plans into action before an offence or a crime is even committed.

Disappearing from the records

This pessimistic vision of migration naturally has an impact on migrants wishing to enter into Europe. While the journey and entry into the territory is becoming increasingly dangerous (just over 14,000 deaths have been recorded since 1988, most of which by drowning), migrants must also slip through the digital net and disappear from records. To conceal their identity, they use aliases supplied by members of their family or in-laws, they provide a false age in order to pass as minors or they use smugglers whose skills now run to digital technology. But other, more radical, strategies are being used. NGOs and border police are aware that numerous migrants are mutilating their fingertips with white-hot iron bars or with acid in order to remove their fingerprints. This practice is often repeated once a month and is mainly used by asylum seekers anxious to avoid being transferred to the first European country in which they arrived (often Spain or Greece). Migrants must henceforth hide not just their identity but also their physical make-up in order to cross digital borders.


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