Europe sets up high tech digital fortress to keep migrants out


Researchers at universities around Europe, working with private firms, have developed futuristic surveillance and verification technology aimed at stopping migrants from entering the continent.

At the Greek border with Turkey, a vast array of physical and experimental new digital barriers are being installed and tested during the quiet months of the coronavirus pandemic to stop people entering the European Union illegally.

A new steel wall, similar to recent construction on the US-Mexico border, blocks commonly-used crossing points along the Evros River that separates the two countries.

Observation towers are being fitted with long-range cameras, night vision, and multiple sensors. The data will be sent to control centres to flag suspicious movement using artificial intelligence analysis.

The EU has poured €3 billion (US$3.7 billion) into security tech research following the refugee crisis in 2015-16, when more than 1 million people – many escaping wars in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan – fled to Greece and on to other EU countries.

“We will have a clear ‘pre-border’ picture of what’s happening,” Police Maj. Dimonsthenis Kamargios, head of the region’s border guard authority, told the Associated Press.

The automated surveillance network being built on the Greek-Turkish border is aimed at detecting migrants early and deterring them from crossing, with river and land patrols using searchlights and long-range acoustic devices.

Key elements of the network will be launched by the end of the year, Kamargios said. “Our task is to prevent migrants from entering the country illegally. We need modern equipment and tools to do that.”

AI-powered lie detectors and virtual border-guard interview bots have been piloted, as well as efforts to integrate satellite data with footage from drones on land, air, sea and underwater.

Makers of live camera reconstruction technology promise to erase foliage virtually, exposing people hiding near border areas.

Testing has also been conducted in Hungary, Latvia and elsewhere along the eastern EU perimeter.

Armed with new tech tools, European law enforcement authorities are leaning further outside borders.

Not all the surveillance programs being tested will be included in the new detection system, but human rights groups say the emerging technology will make it even harder for refugees fleeing wars and extreme hardship to find safety.

Patrick Breyer, a European lawmaker from Germany, has taken an EU research authority to court, demanding that details of the AI-powered lie detection program be made public.

“What we are seeing at the borders, and in treating foreign nationals generally, is that it’s often a testing field for technologies that are later used on Europeans as well. And that’s why everybody should care, in their own self-interest,” Breyer of the German Pirates Party told the AP.

He urged authorities to allow broad oversight of border surveillance methods to review ethical concerns and prevent the sale of the technology through private partners to authoritarian regimes outside the EU.

Ella Jakubowska, of the digital rights group EDRi, argued that EU officials were adopting “techno-solutionism” to sideline moral considerations in dealing with the complex issue of migration.

“It is deeply troubling that, time and again, EU funds are poured into expensive technologies which are used in ways that criminalise, experiment with and dehumanise people on the move,” she said.

The London-based group Privacy International argued the tougher border policing would provide a political reward to European leaders who have adopted a hard line on migration.

“If people migrating are viewed only as a security problem to be deterred and challenged, the inevitable result is that governments will throw technology at controlling them,” said Edin Omanovic, an advocacy director at the group.

Migration flows have slowed in many parts of Europe during the pandemic, interrupting an increase recorded over years. In Greece, for example, the number of arrivals dropped from nearly 75,000 in 2019 to 15,700 in 2020, a 78% decrease.

But the pressure is sure to return. Between 2000 and 2020, the world’s migrant population rose by more than 80% to reach 272 million, according to United Nations data, fast outpacing international population growth. (Source: CNA)