Technopolice at the borders

Posted on

How the security-and-surveillance business in the heart of the EU, besides violating fundamental rights, uses exiles as a research lab, funded by European public funds.

We have talked a lot here in recent months about the surveillance of demonstrations or surveillance in urban public spaces, but the technopolice is deployed above all at the borders — and notably for us, at the borders of “fortress Europe”. These technopolicing methods are first financed, supported, and used for experimentation by the EU, and then sold on. This surveillance of the borders represents a huge market, profiting greatly from the european scale and from its research and development (R&D) programs like Horizon 2020.

Roborders – a swarm of autonomous drones at the borders

An exemple is the project “Roborder” : a pun between robot and border. Launched in 2017, it plans to have borders watched over by swarms of autonomous drones, functioning and patrolling together. These drones would be equipped with AI able to recognize humans and discern whether they are committing infractions (such as crossing borders?) and how dangerous they are, and send warnings to border police. These drones can move in the air, underwater, on water and on ground vehicles. Equipped with multiple sensors, more than merely detecting criminal activities, these drones will aim to identify “unreliable radio frequencies”, meaning to eavesdrop on communications, as well as measuring underwater sonic pollution. These autonomous drones are apparently not equipped with weapons for now. Roborder is currently being deployed experimentally in Greece, Portugal and Hungary.

European funding for “civilian” uses

This project is financed at the level of 8 million euros by the Horizon 2020 program (itself subsidised by Cordis, the R&D agency of the European Commission). Horizon 2020 makes up 50% of public financing for all the EU’s security research.
Roborder is coordinated by the Greek center for research and technology (CERTH), and, as evidenced by the Homo Digitalis association, the number of Horizon 2020 projects keeps on growing in Greece. Besides the Greek CERTH, there are now 25 participants coming from all the EU countries (amongst which we find the police of Northern Ireland, the Greek defense ministry, German drone manufacturers, etc.).

Horizon 2020 finances projects such as these on the condition that the technologies being developed stay within the realm of civilian uses, and can’t be used for military purposes. This may look like a safeguard, but in reality, the distinction between civilian and military usage is far from being clearly established. As Stephen Graham demonstrates, technologies that start as military ones are often repurposed for security, particularly in borders context, where migration is criminalised. This porousness between security and military stems from the need to find ways to get good returns on military research. Such was the trajectory of drones or tear gas. But in our case, a reverse logic is at play : potentially repurposing an internal security usage called “civilian” as a military application for the sake of future sales. But we can also consider surveillance, the detection of persons and repression at the borders as a material form of how Europe is militarizing its borders. In this light, Roborder would be a project with military aims.

In fact, as The Intercept shows, once a project is finished, it is sold. And it is not clear to whom. According to the online magazine, many parties have already expressed interest in Roborder.

IborderCtrl – detecting emotions at the borders

Swarms of drones are impressive, but there are other projects in the same vein, notably the project called IborderCtrl tested in Greece, Hungary, and Latvia.

Its main feature is emotions analysis (alongside other projects of biometry): people wanting to cross a border must answer a series of question, while an algorithm processes their face to determine whether they are lying. The project claims “to speed up controls at borders”: if the lie detector deems someone is telling the truth, it attributes her a code which allows her to pass control easily. If the algorithm deems her to be lying, she’s sent to a second line where the border guards will interrogate her. The emotion analysis claims to be based on “38 facial micromovements” such as the tilting of the head or the movement of the eyes. Such display of pseudoscientific gadgetry serves a function : giving a semblance of technological neutrality to policies of exclusion and dehumanization.

This project has also been financed by Horizon 2020 to the level of 4.5 million euros. It appears to have been stopped, but German Eurodeputy Patrick Breyer has appealed to the European Court of Justice for more information on the projet. His demand was denied, on the ground that it violates trade secrecy. Once again we see that designating the project “civilian” and not “military” is far from being foolproof.


This is how the EU participates actively in the powerful market for surveillance and repression. Borders and exiled persons are used as laboratory resources in a framework of the ever-increasing militarisation of the borders of Fortress Europe, and pursuit of profit and the development of European businesses and research centers. The borders make up a new market and a new windfall to finance the technopolice.

And on the other hand, the figures show an explosion of the budget of the European Frontex agency (from 137 million euros in 2015 to 322 million in 2020; figures of the European accounting court), and ever-greater surveillance of the borders. At the same time the ratio between the number of those who try to cross the Mediterranean and the number who lose their lives there is only growing. Automating surveillance at the borders is thus no more than a new way for European authorities to highlight the drama playing out in the Mediterranean region, for “effectiveness” which, in the end, will profit only the surveillance industry.

In the streets and at the borders we must turn down the technopolice and struggle against them eye to eye!

This article was first published by the technopolice site (in french).