Pandemic Borders

COVID-19: can technology become a tool of oppression and surveillance?

Technology is not inherently democratic and its human rights impacts are particularly important to consider in humanitarian and forced migration contexts.

Petra Molnar
1 May 2020
Pxfuel / (CC0 1.0) Public Domain Dedication
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Refugees, immigrants, and people on the move have long been tied to tropes of bringing disease and illness. From pandemics to genocides, people crossing borders whether by force or by choice are talked about in apocalyptic terms like ‘flood’ or ‘wave,’ underscored by rampant xenophobia, racism, and elemental fear of ‘The Other’. Not only are these formulations blatantly incorrect, they also legitimize far reaching state incursion and increasingly hardline policies of surveillance and techno-solutionism to manage migration.

These practices become all the more apparent in the current global fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a matter of days, we have already seen Big Tech present a variety of ‘solutions’ for fighting the coronavirus sweeping the globe, including surveillance tools and increased monitoring. Coupled with extraordinary state powers in times of exception, the incursion of private sector solutions leaves open the possibility of grave human rights abuses and far reaching incursions on civil liberties. While emergency powers can be legitimate if grounded in science and the need to protect health and safety, history shows that states commit abuses in times of exception. New technologies can often facilitate these abuses, particularly against marginalized communities.

History shows that states commit abuses in times of exception

Making migrants more trackable and detectable justifies the use of more technology and data collection in the name of public health and national security, or even under the banner of humanitarianism and development. Yet technology is not inherently democratic and its human rights impacts are particularly important to consider in humanitarian and forced migration contexts.

Even before the current pandemic, we have already been witnessing a worldwide roll-out of migration “techno-solutionism.” These technological experiments occur at many points in a person’s migration journey. Well before a border is even crossed, Big Data analytics are used to predict the movement of migrants and biometric data is collected about refugees. At the border, AI lie detectors and facial recognition have started to scan people’s faces for signs of deception. Beyond the border, algorithms have made their way into complex decision-making in immigration and refugee determinations, normally undertaken by human officers.

For example, in the US, the private data analytics company Palantir supplies the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) with technology to facilitate the deportations and human rights abuses of undocumented migrants, separating children from their families and causing the deaths of at least 24 people in detention. Other jurisdictions, such as Canada and the UK, have begun experimenting with automated decision-making in their immigration and visa applications. Our recent research at the University of Toronto has shown that biased technologies fail to capture the complex nature of immigration applications and refugee claims

In some cases, increased technology at the border can mean increased deaths. So-called ‘smart borders’ are being touted as efficient and expansive ways to control migration. In late 2019, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, commonly known as Frontex, announced a new border strategy which relies on increased staff and new technology. This strategy includes its ROBORDER project which ‘aims to create a fully functional autonomous border surveillance system with unmanned mobile robots including aerial, water surface, underwater and ground vehicles.’ In the US, similar ‘smart-border’ technologies have been called a more ‘humane’ alternative to the Trump Administration’s calls for a physical wall.

However, these technologies can have drastic results. For example, border control policies that use new surveillance technologies along the US–Mexico border have actually doubled migrant deaths and pushed migration routes towards more dangerous terrain through the Arizona desert, creating what anthropologist Jason De Leon calls a ‘land of open graves’. Given that the International Organization for Migration (IOM) has reported that due to recent shipwrecks, over 20 000 people have died trying to cross the Mediterranean since 2014, we can only imagine how many more bodies will wash upon the shores of Europe as the situation heats up in Greece and Turkey.

Making migrants more trackable and detectable justifies the use of more technology and data collection in the name of public health and national security

The COVID-19 pandemic will greatly affect people on the move, particularly refugees living in informal settlements or securitized camps. Cases have already been reported on the Greek Island of Lesbos, which has been hosting hundreds of thousands of refugees since the start of the Syrian war in 2011. However, the answer to stopping the spread of the virus is not increased surveillance through new technology or preventing access into the camps for NGO workers and medical personnel. Instead, we need a redistribution of vital resources, free access to healthcare for all regardless of immigration status, and more empathy and kindness towards people on the move.

Technological tools can quickly become tools of oppression and surveillance, denying people agency and dignity and contributing to a global climate that is increasingly more hostile to people on the move. Most importantly, technological solutions do not address the root causes of displacement, forced migration, and economic inequality, all of which exacerbate the spread of global pandemics like COVID-19.

In times of exception like a global pandemic, the hubris of Big Tech thinking it has all the answers is not the solution.

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