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Abstract

The European Union’s effort at controlling its external borders is an endeavour that increasingly relies on digital systems: from tools for information gathering and surveillance to systems for communicating between different agencies and across member states. This makes EU borders a key site for the politics of “digital sovereignty” – of controlling digital data, software and infrastructures. In this article, we propose a new understanding of how the concepts of digital and sovereignty interplay: sovereignty by digital means, sovereignty of the digital, and sovereignty over the digital. We do it by analysing three key manifestations within the EU’s borderwork: firstly, the expansion of EURODAC to include facial biometric data; secondly, the creation of the (future) shared Biometric Matching System (sBMS); and thirdly, the EU-funded West Africa Police Information System (WAPIS). These databases and systems exemplify three transformations of EU borderwork that invoke different dimensions of digital sovereignty: expansion of techniques for governing migration; interoperability of EU databases facilitating the internalisation of borders through domestic policing; and extra-territorialization of borderwork beyond the geographic limits of the EU.
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European Security
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Border security and the digitalisation of
sovereignty: insights from EU borderwork
Bruno Oliveira Martins, Kristoffer Lidén & Maria Gabrielsen Jumbert
To cite this article: Bruno Oliveira Martins, Kristoffer Lidén & Maria Gabrielsen Jumbert (2022)
Border security and the digitalisation of sovereignty: insights from EU borderwork, European
Security, 31:3, 475-494, DOI: 10.1080/09662839.2022.2101884
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/09662839.2022.2101884
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Border security and the digitalisation of sovereignty: insights
from EU borderwork
Bruno Oliveira Martins, Kristoer Lidén and Maria Gabrielsen Jumbert
Peace Research Institute Oslo, Oslo, Norway
ABSTRACT
The European Unionseort at controlling its external borders is an
endeavour that increasingly relies on digital systems: from tools for
information gathering and surveillance to systems for
communicating between dierent agencies and across member
states. This makes EU borders a key site for the politics of digital
sovereignty”–of controlling digital data, software and
infrastructures. In this article, we propose a new understanding of
how the concepts of digital and sovereignty interplay: sovereignty
by digital means, sovereignty of the digital, and sovereignty over
the digital. We do it by analysing three key manifestations within
the EUs borderwork: rstly, the expansion of EURODAC to include
facial biometric data; secondly, the creation of the (future) shared
Biometric Matching System (sBMS); and thirdly, the EU-funded
West Africa Police Information System (WAPIS). These databases
and systems exemplify three transformations of EU borderwork
that invoke dierent dimensions of digital sovereignty: expansion
of techniques for governing migration; interoperability of EU
databases facilitating the internalisation of borders through
domestic policing; and extra-territorialization of borderwork
beyond the geographic limits of the EU.
ARTICLE HISTORY
Received 24 November 2021
Accepted 12 July 2022
KEYWORDS
European Union;
borderwork; digital
sovereignty; security;
interoperability;
extraterritorialization
1. Introduction
In the summer of 2021, a number of seemingly unrelated political developments were
taking place in Brussels and beyond involving dierent actors and EU institutions.
Firstly, thirty civil society organisations and NGOs wrote a letter to Member of the Euro-
pean Parliament (MEP) Jorge Buxadé regarding the intention of using facial recognition
for biometric identication included in a proposal to reform the EURODAC Regulation.
They expressed their concerns, calling it a matter of a highly political and strategic
naturethat may undermine the EUs duty to respect international asylum and migration
law and standards(Access Now 2021). Buxadé is the lead MEP with the task of reforming
EURODAC the EU ngerprint database for asylum seekers a reform that NGOs believe
should be paused due to fundamental rights issues.
Secondly, around the same time, concerns were raised regarding the development of
the new EU shared Biometric Matching System (sBMS), when MEP Patrick Breyer posed
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medium, provided the original work is properly cited, and is not altered, transformed, or built upon in any way.
CONTACT Bruno Oliveira Martins brumar@prio.org
EUROPEAN SECURITY
2022, VOL. 31, NO. 3, 475494
https://doi.org/10.1080/09662839.2022.2101884
written questions to Krum Garkov, the Executive Director of eu-LISA, the EUs Agency for
the Operational Management of Large-Scale IT Systems in the Area of Freedom, Security
and Justice (AFSJ) (Garkov 2021). The questions were related to contracts for information
systems concluded by eu-LISA (and Frontex), particularly the ones signed between the
agency, on the one hand, and French companies IDEMIA and Sopra Steria, on the
other, to deliver the new sBMS, which, when in force, will be one of the largest biometric
systems in the world, integrating a database of over 400 million third-country nationals
with their ngerprints and facial images.
Finally, European news agencies reported how biometric-based security control pro-
grammes were mushrooming in Northern Africa, many of which funded directly by the
EU (Creta 2021). Several of these biometric databases were either established by EU
funding, such as the West African Police Information System (WAPIS), or share their
data with Frontex and other international agencies. These databases are also
implemented in cooperation with other projects, such as the Free Movement of
Persons and Migration in West Africa (FMM West Africa), a project funded by the EU
and run by the International Organisation for Migration in all 15-ECOWAS countries.
One of the aims of the scheme is to introduce biometric identity cards for West African
citizens (Zandonini 2019) so that peoples movement (mostly towards the EU) can be
more easily controlled.
In this article, we propose to study these developments from the perspective of digital
sovereignty. Emerging debates around digital sovereignty in the EU context have put
emphasis on how this concept relates to the notion of strategic autonomy and indepen-
dence of digital information and infrastructures. This is key when EU border management
is digitalised through the above-listed dynamics. Digital sovereignty can be dened with
Luciano Floridi (2020, pp. 370371) as a
ght for () the control of data,software (e.g. AI), standards and protocols (e.g. 5G, domain
names), processes (e.g. cloud computing), hardware (e.g. mobile phones), services (e.g.
social media, e-commerce), and infrastructures (e.g. cables, satellites, smart cities), in short,
for the control of the digital.
While covering the ght for sovereignty over the digital, we nonetheless also see a need
for opening this concept to two other dimensions of the dyad digital/sovereignty: sover-
eignty by digital means and sovereignty of the digital. The growing digitalisation of the
EUs borderwork oers possibilities for rethinking the way these three dimensions interact
and mutually inuence each other. On the one hand, the above-mentioned databases
demonstrate the capacity and will of the EU to prescribe and regulate digital technologies
in the elds of its operations. On the other hand, they exemplify how these operations rely
on controversial technological, security-political and commercial rationales that are not
necessarily compatible with the ght for digital sovereignty.
Indeed, common to the above-mentioned developments are three key dynamics that
invoke the dierent constellations of digital/sovereignty. The rst one deals with how the
access of non-EU citizens to the union territory is increasingly mediated by databases with
expanding biometric outreach. In the name of security, these databases are combined
with automated risk proling of travellers for the eective exclusion of unwanted
migrants as well as potential criminals or terrorists. The second dynamic refers to the
push towards the interoperability of EU databases, i.e. the eort to make dierent
476 B. O. MARTINS ET AL.
systems communicate through the sharing of searchable data, in a process that enmeshes
traveller information with police databases that aim at identifying criminal suspects and
enforcing migration policies. The third dynamic relates to how these eorts are increas-
ingly taking place beyond the geographic limit of the EU. In other words, the boundaries
of EU sovereignty are not only increasingly digital but also extra-territorialized, in a
process facilitated by the turn towards data-based population movement control.
An important part of EU sovereignty, in general, is understood to be related to the
management of its borders, in line with the classic literature that associates sovereignty
with the territory. In this article, though, we embrace a uid, post-traditionalist under-
standing of borders (Bellanova et al.2022), acknowledging their polysemic nature
(Balibar 2002, p. 79), and we interpret border management as an enactment of territorial
sovereignty that happens both within and beyond territorial lines. As argued by Foucault
(2007 [1978], p. 29), the sovereignty of states relies not only on eorts at controlling the
means of violence within a territory, but also at enabling and controlling the circulation of
people and goods (see also Vaughan-Williams 2015). Provided this connection between
border control and sovereignty, we see the eld of digital borderwork as a salient site
for the study of digital sovereignty.
We use the word borderwork to capture the activities around envisioning, construct-
ing, maintaining and erasing borders(Rumford 2008, p. 2; see also Vaughan-Williams
2008, Frowd 2018). We also understand EU security, and particularly EU security as oper-
ationalised at its borders, as a socio-technical assemblage, i.e. heterogeneous systems
composed of elements that are both material and immaterial, both physical and
textual(Bellanova and Duez 2012). In short, the socio-technical assemblage of EU
border security is composed of its dierent systems, digital and material, its technologies,
hardware and software, high- and low-tech, various border professionals, and their every-
day practices. Our inquiry is organised as a path towards answering one main question:
what does the growing digitalisation of EU borderwork tell us about the conditions for
digital sovereignty in the eld of EU security governance? More concretely, how does
the digitalisation of eorts to control the circulation of people across EU borders
through shared and interoperable databases aect EU sovereignty (sovereignty by
digital means)? Does this reliance on digital databases represent a radical departure
from analogue borderwork (sovereignty of the digital)? What does this entail for EU
eorts at controlling the databases (sovereignty over the digital)?
In the article we start by showing how the EUs borderwork is increasingly being digi-
talised amidst political controversies over digital surveillance and EU migration policy
(Section 2). Then we review three key manifestations of this growing digitalisation as illus-
tration (Section 3): rstly, the expansion of EURODAC to include facial biometric data
allowing for the use of automated facial recognition technologies; secondly, the creation
of the upcoming sBMS; and thirdly, the EU-funded WAPIS system being implemented in
Northern Africa. We then move on to show how this illustrates the three levels of sover-
eignty by, of and over the digital (Section 4), and discussing how our engagement with
the political and social character of digital data-based EU security governance under-
stands this as an area where new actors and new policies are continuously challenging
the contours of what European security is, how it is manifested, how it is contested,
and what implications it may have on individuals. We conclude with reections on how
both digital-based security governance and the political sociology that surrounds it
EUROPEAN SECURITY 477
should be treated as a mainstream approach to study contemporary security phenomena
in the EU and beyond.
2. The growing digitalisation of EU borderwork
In recent years, the turn to digital-based forms of governance and administration with the
aim of gaining a better oversight, control and eciency has concerned most, if not all,
sectors of society. They do not only promise to deliver faster and more ecient services
but also advertise rational and objective systems of governance rather than those based
on individual interactions and preferences. This logic has expanded into the governance
of security as well examples include the automated gathering of intelligence data, pat-
terns of life analysis based on that data, as well as predictive policing relying on machine
learning techniques (Amoore and Raley 2017, Aradau and Blanke 2018, Kaufmann et al.
2019, Bellanova and de Goede 2022). In the case of the EU, this has been manifested in
some of the processes deriving from the logic of smart borders (Jeandesboz 2016,
Leese 2016, Bigo 2020). Smart borders are integrated IT systems and infrastructures invol-
ving a combination of technologies for border control (e-gates, self-service kiosks, auto-
mated security checks, border surveillance and software for pre-registration and risk
assessment of travellers) and centralised databases with information on travel permits,
travel history, and biometric identiers, including ngerprints and facial features. They
make border crossings faster and smoother for EU citizens and those who have travel
permits or passports from countries with pre-existing visa agreements, yet more
dicult, if not impossible, for those without permits or the right passport including
notably those seeking asylum, who need to rst access the country they want to seek
asylum in.
The eld of border management and migration control lends itself particularly well to
the problemthat such new digital systems and solutionsare in search of (Martins and
Jumbert 2022, Morozov 2013, Trauttmansdorf and Felt 2021). While border management
is a legitimate prerogative of sovereign states, as immigration and border security have
become highly politicised areas with few straightforward solutions, they are particularly
vulnerable to discourses arguing for the need of ecient but also seemingly neutral
and objective, data-based systems (see Bellanova and Glouftsios 2020 for a critique of
this narrative). The increased digitalisation of EU borders has concerned all the dimen-
sions of both external and internal borders of the EU, from its land, air and sea borders,
through the overarching concept of smart borders, to the digitalisation of security
checks, passport screening and body screening (Jeandesboz 2016, Bigo 2020, Amelung
et al. 2021, Dijstelbloem 2021). The idea that smart borders will reduce the weight of
human error (or merely, subjectivity) is transcending all of these developments. This
idea is materialised in, for example, the search for a perfect situational overview
through aerial surveillance, and in the quest for perfect and truthful information about
migrants’“realidentity. In the latter case, this logic translates into measures such as
the screening of asylum seekerssmart phones and social media to verify the well-found-
edness of their claims for protection (Alencar et al. 2018, Jumbert et al. 2018, Bolhuis and
van Wijk 2021).
In recent years, the principle of interoperabilityhas driven policy-making in EU border
security. Interoperability refers to the idea that the dierent systems of surveillance and
478 B. O. MARTINS ET AL.
border control should be able to communicate between each other, as seamlessly as
possible (Bellanova and Glouftsios 2020; European Commission 2016,2017, Leese 2020,
OJEU 2019). In 2016, the Commission, in its Communication Stronger and Smarter Infor-
mation Systems for Borders and Security (European Commission 2016), argued for the
necessity of improving the EUs data management architecture, to which it received
the support and engagement of the Parliament and the Council. Later in the year, the
Commission created a high-level expert group (HLEG) on information systems and inter-
operability, that made the case for the added-value of interoperability between the
customs systems and the existing databases in JHA. In its May 2017 report (DGMHA
2017), the HLEG requested eu-LISA to analyse the technical and operational aspects of
the possible implementation of a shared biometric matching service. Eu-LISA then con-
ducted a feasibility study on dierent possible pathways to operationalise these
systems in line with the idea of interoperability (eu-LISA 2018). These and other initiatives
laid the foundations for the adoption of the May 2019 Regulation on establishing a frame-
work for interoperability between EU information systems in the eld of borders and visa
(European Parliament and Council 2019).
Allowing systems to communicate between each other may be crucial to allow them to
carry out their basic functions, yet this same interoperability can create architectures that
are both mutually vulnerable and where the very combination of data through the inter-
operability potentially allows for other operations beyond the ones for which each system
has been validated individually. As will be demonstrated in the next section, the push for
interoperability can be seen as an attempt to furthering EU digital sovereignty, both
regarding the sovereignty over the digital (through the reliance on EU-based companies
to design and maintain the systems) (see also Barrinha and Christou, 2022, Csernatoni,
2022, Farrand and Carapico, 2022, Calderaro and Blumfelde, 2022) and sovereignty by
digital means (through expansion of the interoperability logic into territories beyond
the EU).
3. Modes of digital borderwork: three illustrations
How does this growing digitalisation of borderwork take place? In this section, we will
illustrate these processes with insights from three dierent types of systems aimed at
screening, identifying and controlling people: the EURODAC, the new (and future)
sBMS, and WAPIS. What they all have in common is a move towards collecting increas-
ingly more information about individuals, including biometric information on ever
younger persons, in order to more eectively screen migrants on their way to reach
Europe, as well as identifying and expelling unwanted migrants within the EU. While
these dierent systems constitute modes of bio-bordering to borrow the expression
of Nina Amelung, Rafaela Granja and Helena Machado (Amelung et al. 2021)each of
them is an illustrative example of at least one of the three dynamics that characterise
the digitalisation of borderwork: systems expansion (in the case of EURODAC and
WAPIS), interoperability (in the case of the EURODAC, sBMS and WAPIS) and extra-territor-
ialization (in the case of WAPIS).
Additionally, there is an important element at stake that is relevant for the debates on
the EUs digital sovereignty, particularly regarding how this digital sovereignty is pursued.
One of the strategies is to have new data-based systems designed and maintained by EU-
EUROPEAN SECURITY 479
based companies rather than having them provided by third-country companies. Indeed,
in the cases covered in this article, the three systems have either been created or are main-
tained by European private providers. EURODAC was originally provided by the US-based
Cogent Systems, who won a contract to supply the Eurodac Automated Fingerprint
Identication System in 2002. This company was recently acquired by the French multi-
national company Thales, that now provides and maintains EURODAC through Thales
Cogent (Thales 2020). As for the creation of the sBMS, the consortium that won the con-
tract in 2020 is led by the French multinational companies IDEMIA and Sopra Steria
(IDEMIA 2020). WAPIS was developed by Interpol with the technical support of CIVIPOL
(EU Trust Fund for Africa 2019), the French Ministry of the Interiors public limited
company that, as shown by Privacy International, is 40% owned by the French state
and is part-owned by large defence companies, including Thales, Airbus DS, and Safran
(Privacy International 2020). WAPIS is just one of the several new North-African biometric
schemes that are being built with EU resources and where CIVIPOL is deeply involved
(Privacy International 2020).
3.1. EURODAC
EURODAC operates as an Automated Fingerprint Identication System (AFIS) and con-
tains the ngerprints of all asylum applicants from each EU member state, and nger-
prints from people who were detained during irregular border crossings. The EURODAC
is applied within the areas where the Dublin III Regulation is applicable. EURODAC was
adopted as a European Council Regulation on 11 December 2000, and it is often empha-
sised that its primary aim is to deal with the issue of asylum shopping”–for example, the
Thales Group, whose subsidiary companies have been responsible for supplying the AFIS
since 2002, refers to EURODACseectiveness in preventing asylum shopping(Thales
2020). For every individual registered, EURODAC currently stores a complete set of digi-
tised ngerprints, the state sending the data, the place and date of the application for
international protection, the persons gender, and a reference number.
On 1 June 2013, eu-LISA took over the daily operational management of EURODAC
from the Commission. The central server is a fully automated system. In 2015, the new
EURODAC Regulation (603/2013) took eect, enabling national police forces and the
EUROPOL to access the database for prevention, investigation and detection of criminal
activity. On 4 May 2016, the European Commission proposed (2016/0132 COD) to
reinforce and expand the EURODAC Regulation, and in 2018, in a provisional agreement,
the Parliament and the Council agreed on an expansion of the system. This widening of
the stored biometric data is manifested in the storage of facial images and alphanumeric
data of asylum seekers and irregular migrants in addition to ngerprints; in lowering the
age for obtaining ngerprints and facial images of minors from 14 to 6 years old; in per-
mitting Europol to enquire the database more eciently; in registering persons falling
under the Union or national resettlement schemes; and in giving partial access to the
authorities of third countries on certain conditions. As part of the broader migration
and asylum pact, the Commission presented an amended proposal on 23 September
2020 (COM(2020) 614). If accepted, the proposal would introduce an obligation to store
data on names, nationalities, place and date of birth, and travel document information;
480 B. O. MARTINS ET AL.
for asylum seekers, the obligation is to store the asylum application number and the
Member State responsible under the Dublin Regulation.
This proposed expansion of EURODAC is an important condition enabling the growing
digitalisation of EU borderwork, with potential impact on the sovereignty over the digital.
This expansion is being promoted by the French company Thales and it is an eort in
grounding within Europe the technical and technological infrastructure of a programme
central to European border management. EURODAC has received critical views in the
specialised literature due to its enmeshment of the migration and crime control logics
(Vavuola 2015, Queiroz 2019), and, if implemented, some of the proposed amendments
to its regulation would only make these problems grow bigger and more complex.
Opening up to automated facial recognition technology would import all the problems
regarding biases in facial recognition technology (Benjamin 2019, Birhane 2021)toan
already challenging system.
3.2. Shared Biometric Matching System (sBMS)
When operational, the sBMS will be one of the largest biometric systems in the world,
integrating a database of over 400 million third-country nationals with their ngerprints
and facial images. As of June 2022, the sBMS is not in place and the consortium tasked
with providing it by mid 2022has faced problems that will lead to signicant delays
in delivering the system (Statewatch 2021).
The new sBMS will be used for the future Entry-Exit System and by all the systems
already in use in the EU: the Schengen Information System (SIS), the Visa Information
System (VIS), EURODAC, and the future European Criminal Records Information System
Third Country Nationals (ECRIS-TCN). In practical terms, it will extract biometric tem-
platesfrom dierent EU databases to simplify the searching and cross-matching of bio-
metric datasuch as ngerprints, facial images, etc. (Jones 2019, p. 6) and will integrate a
wide complex system of agencies (e.g. Interpol, Europol) and databases (EES, ECRIS-TCN,
VIS, EURODAC and ETIAS) that constitute the interoperable infrastructure of EU migration
and crime control. Whereas ECRIS focusing on EU citizens has been in place since 2012,
eu-LISA is now tasked with expanding this system to also include information about
third-country individuals with criminal record in an EU member state. The idea with the
sBMS is that authorities will be able to check whether third-country nationals are the
person they claim to be through biometric verication and then ensure they do not over-
stay. A set of alphanumeric data, as well as biometric data, will be collected, checked and
stored for three years. The biometric data remains in Europe.
As mentioned by Mathias Leese:
the new interoperability architecture for the Schengen area bears witness of a shift towards
identity management that aspires to simultaneously verify and cross-validate identity records
across multiple domains. The results from such verication and cross-validation processes
then form a new, allegedly truthful basis for knowledge production and government.
(Leese 2020, p. 16)
Yet early on, observers have pointed out that interoperability creates problematic
enmeshments of databases created for very dierent purposes (Bunyan 2018)for
example, travel, border crossings, criminal record archiving for judicial cooperation,
EUROPEAN SECURITY 481
criminal suspect listing for police investigations, etc. These correspond to dierent EU
policy and law objectives and functions. The EU Data Protection Supervisor highlighted
that interoperability is not only or primarily a technical choice but rather a political
choice liable to have profound legal and societal consequences that cannot be hidden
behind allegedly technical changes(European Data Protection Supervisor 2018, p. 30,
point 143). In concrete, the Supervisor underlined that:
facilitating the access by law enforcement authorities to non-law enforcement systems (i.e. to
information obtained by authorities for purposes other than law enforcement), even to a
limited extent, is far from insignicant from a fundamental rights perspective. Routine
access would indeed represent a serious violation of the principle of purpose limitation.
(European Data Protection Supervisor 2018,p.3)
3.3. Beyond the EU: funding the datacation of African borders
In previous sections of the article, we argued that digital technologies have been put at
the service of an enactment of EU borders, as they are portrayed as serving a vital security
function through the control of mobility. Above, we showed how two EU programmes
perform this logic: EURODAC, erecting the EU border against asylum seekers; and
sBMS, oering security integration through interoperability of systems. Both cases
relate to programmes and agencies that operate within the EU.
If we understand borders and territory as enactable (i.e. capable of being enacted),
then, in line with this critical understanding of the border, we can claim that the EUs
border is increasingly also enacted beyond the geographical borders of the EU, and
well into third countries. As argued by Frowd, the literature in political geography has
emphasised shifts in territoriality and authority whether it is through the adoption of
new technologies (e.g. Amoore 2006) but also broader questions of spatiality and territori-
ality(2021, p. 3). While for many years the externalisation of EU borders has been exten-
sively documented and analysed (Lavenex 2006, Bialasiewicz 2012, Carrera et al. 2018,
Martins and Strange 2019) the contemporary trend towards growing digitalisation
brings new shades to this deterritorialization. In Northern Africa, an assemblage of
actors, systems and practices has promoted increasing digitalisation, biometric regis-
tration, and interoperability of African databases in order to better control the move-
ments of populations. The turn to this biometric digitalisation is often promoted and
funded by the EU, and it is implemented through technological solutions created, main-
tained, and made available by European companies such as Gemalto (FR/NL), Veridos
(DE), Mühlbauer (DE), Idemia (FR) and Civipol (FR), among others.
In this context, the above-mentioned WAPIS system is of particular relevance. WAPIS is
a multiannual Programme (20122022) funded by the EU which aims at improving the
capacity of West African law enforcement agencies to combat transnational organised
crime and terrorism by facilitating the sharing of information(EUTF Africa 2019). As a
cross-national system, it is managed by INTERPOL and, since 2017, it also collaborates
with ECOWAS. According to Interpols webpage on WAPIS, the system:
.Enables police ocers in West African countries to access critical police information from
their national criminal databases and from databases of countries across the region, thus
improving the identication of criminals and supporting ongoing investigations.
482 B. O. MARTINS ET AL.
.Improves analysis of the problems of transnational organised crime and terrorism
facing the region and allow a better understanding of crime originating in, coming
from and transiting through West Africa.
.Allows greater police and judicial cooperation in criminal matters within the region, the
European Union and the rest of the world. (Interpol 2021)
The rst phase of the WAPIS Programme was launched in September 2012, and in Sep-
tember 2013, it started with four pilot countries (Benin, Ghana, Niger, Mali) under the
EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa. These countries are crucial parts of the Western
African routes of migration to Europe. In 2016, the WAPIS began to be implemented
also in Burkina Faso, Chad, Côte dIvoire and Mauritania, again as part of the EU Emer-
gency Trust Programme for Africa. And since November 2017, there has been a full appli-
cation in all ECOWAS member states and Mauritania (Interpol and ECOWAS 2020).
Although the narrative is that the necessity of such a system was rst detected by
African police authorities and requested by them to the EU, it has been argued in the lit-
erature on EU externalisation policies that, despite claims of partnership, the EU and
African countries are unequal partners in the eld of migration management, both
parties entering partnership agreements from very different positions of power (El
Qadim 2014, Pradella and Taghdisi Rad 2017, De Guerry and Stocchiero 2018,
Lemberg-Pedersen 2019, Strange and Martins 2019). In other words, irrespective of
which party took the initiative in creating this setup, the WAPIS system fundamentally
meets the needs and wishes of the EU for furthering population control in Africa, to
the extent that it decided to fund it from its funding schemes.
WAPIS represents an eort to digitalise and make readable the biometric data of
African citizens, and while having a decisive EU impetus through nance and political
agenda-setting, it involves a large number of state-level and international actors. The
data generated by WAPIS is then shared with larger international databases and organis-
ations, including Frontex. The readability of data across dierent systems is a requirement
of interoperability. In other words, data needs to be formatted in a way to be rendered
readable by dierent systems that indeed share similar congurations. That the WAPIS
was funded by the EU indicates that the EUs turn to interoperability stretches beyond
the EU territory and that interoperability of databases has become an important dimen-
sion of the externalisation of EU migration management policies. As argued by Eva
Stambøl when scrutinising land border security-building by international actors in West
Africa, borders can be understood as penal transplantsembodying specic (western)
visions of state, political power, social control/order and territoriality(Stambøl 2021a,
p. 474); in this case the push to interoperability of African security and criminal databases
with EU ones, made possible through a EU-funded and European-provided data infra-
structure, illustrates this transplantation of EU borderwork through data to Africa and
how security, migration, and crime control objectives are fundamentally interconnected.
4. Interpreting EU digital borderwork: sovereignty as hegemony and
algocracy
From these three cases, we see how the sovereignty of the EU that is to be main-
tained through EU digital sovereignty is not only aimed at maintaining the security,
EUROPEAN SECURITY 483
rights and interests of EU citizens: it is it is also about controlling the circulation of
non-EU citizens inside, outside and at the EU external borders. On the one hand,
this happens through the enactment of sovereignty by digital technology, including
the above-mentioned databases. On the other, it happens through the very sover-
eignty of the digital tools that is, through the autonomy and automation of
computation.
4.1. Sovereignty by digital means: the expansion, interoperability and
deterritorialization of EU borders
As noted in the introduction, data-based digital tools for this borderwork are not a
mere extension of analogue practices but involve a threefold transformation:anexpan-
sion of the work as exemplied by the expansion of the biometric techniques to be
included in EURODAC; an interoperability of borderwork by enhancing the policing of
non-EU citizens within the EU as exemplied by the sBMS; and an extra-territorializa-
tion of borderwork by reaching into the borderwork of foreign countries as with the
WAPIS.
A requirement of interoperability is that not only data is shared, but that dierent data
is presented and formatted in a way that can rend it readable, also across platforms. Inter-
operability requires compatibility of systems, and therefore the data needs to be pre-
sented, stored and organised in a compatible way across dierent systems. This means
that WAPIS, for example, is not just about getting access to the biometric data of
African citizens; it is also about making sure that the data is collected, stored and pro-
grammed in a way that is compatible with EU systems. So, the EU funding, and its
design by European companies, ensure that the data will come in the right format to
ensure the interoperability with EU systems.
In this context, the notion of EU borderwork might leave the impression of EU agencies
operating under EU legislation for the implementation of EU migration policies at the
service of EU sovereignty and security. While this is part of the story, the above examples
illustrate how it leaves a false impression of the power and autonomy of the EU versus its
members states, private corporations, individual EU citizens and foreign countries and
corporations. With Bent Flyvbjergs(2001) distinction between the formalpolitikand
realpolitikof governance, the formal jurisdictions and procedures of EU borderwork
rely on a realpolitik of competing and partly conicting actors and interests. In the case
of EURODAC, for instance, the systems, interests and routines of national agencies do
not neatly align with each other or the EUs policies and legislation (cf. Bigo et al. 2011,
Bigo 2020). Moreover, the proposed widening of the system is subject to resistance
from parliamentarians and NGOs concerned with data protection, state surveillance
and the rights of migrants. Examples regarding sBMS include the repeated failures of actu-
ally making security systems interoperable in practice within and across national borders
and of making border guards and the police using them according to the intentions (cf.
Bigo 2014,2020). Not to speak of the commercial and national interests involved in pro-
viding and maintaining a super-system like the sBMS, with an estimated total value of
302,550,000 EUR for the rst contract period (Eu-LISA 2020).
The element of realpolitik in the externalisation of EU borderwork is even more
straightforward including a range of means like security assistance, aid and trade in
484 B. O. MARTINS ET AL.
return for cooperation on migration management (Lemberg-Pedersen 2019, Stambøl
2021b). Formally, these agreements respect the sovereignty of third countrieslike
Libya, Mali and Niger. However, in practice, the power asymmetries between the EU
and these countries involve a de facto bracketing of their de jure sovereignty for the
strengthening of EU sovereignty as well as for the strengthening of their de facto internal
sovereignty (Krasner 1999, Strange and Martins 2019).
In other words, and in line with a Bourdieusian reading, digital, data-based borderwork
is not just about the technologies and their functionalities and regulation but also about
the politics they are embedded in and how the technologies are used in practice. Bigo
et al. (2019) argue that data and politics are now inseparable: data is not only shaping
our social relations, preferences and life chances, but our very democracies. As we have
seen, it also shapes the nature and enactment of sovereignty including digital sover-
eignty and highlights how data brings into being what it represents. Digital borderwork
is more than merely counting and overseeing the movement of data subjects, it also
recongures these subjects by making them governable.
Hence, the enabling and controlling of the circulation of people and goods that Fou-
cault described as an aspect of state sovereignty is not only about governing the citizenry
but identifying and excluding unwanted foreigners. In line with Stambøls above-men-
tioned observations, Mark Dueld describes this governance as part of a global security
architecturethat defends the Westsway of life:
The internal and external frontiers of this security architecture are radically interconnected
through the ows and spaces of global circulation, which itself creates a need to police its
dynamics, that is, allowing the goodcirculation on which globalized markets depend
such as investment, commodity ows, information, patent rights, technology, skilled
migration and tourism while preventing the badcirculation that poses a risk to national
and international stability: non-insured migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, together with
the shadow economies, money laundering, drugs, international crime, tracking and terror-
ism associated with ineective states and zones of crisis. (Dueld 2007, p. 187)
In Duelds account, the dangers and desolation of unwanted migrants and failed
states are itself a result of hegemonic policies that reinforce global inequalities of security
and welfare. However, independent of what causes these inequalities, the need to police
the EU borders in ever more eective ways to avoid uncontrolled immigration is an eect
of the superior wealth and security of Western countries. In eect, the EU sovereignty that
it maintains is not just about protecting Europe from foreign dangers it is a hegemonic
kind of sovereignty maintaining global inequalities of power and wealth.
4.2. The sovereignty of the digital: algocracy, technocracy and hypocrisy
When shifting our focus from the digitalisation of sovereignty to the sovereignty of the
digital, EU digital borderwork also tells a story of what it means to rely on automated
forms of digital technology. As we have seen, databases like EURODAC are integral to
larger systems of smart bordersthat involve the automated surveillance and processing
of digital information on travellers. The notion of algocracypresents us with a useful
point of departure in this regard. In Danahers iteration, this term is dened as a
system in which algorithms are used to collect, collate and organize the data upon
which decisions are typically made and to assist in how that data is processed and
EUROPEAN SECURITY 485
communicated through the relevant governance system(Danaher 2016, p. 247). In the
original conceptualisation by Aneesh (2006,2009), algocracy was dened in distinction
from a bureaucracy and a market. As Danaher notes, however, the boundaries between
these systems are not clear-cut, and algocratic decision-making systems can be inte-
grated into pre-existing legal-bureaucratic decision-making systems(Danaher 2016,
p. 247). At an aggregate level, one might speculate that this involves a transformation
of the sovereignty of states and organisations as well replacing human-based sover-
eignty with an autonomous mode of virtual sovereignty.
While highlighting the dierence that algorithms can make to systems of governance,
reducing practices of governance to algorithmic governancein this way is nonetheless
unconvincing at least in the context of EU border management. Instead of dening
algocracy as an entirely new mode of governance, we propose to conceive it as a continu-
ation of technocracy, i.e. a technocracy 3.0, where the original iteration is the exercise of
governance based on scientic expertise, and the second is the emergence of a modern
bureaucratic system for collective governance based on a combination of science and sur-
veillance (Hacking 1990). The third iteration technocracy as algocracy involves the
introduction of advanced computation to this system, based on logics of prediction
and prevention beyond the capacity and comprehension of humans (be they in, on or
othe loop) (Table 1).
In this account, algocracy has not replaced modern bureaucracy and the market but
interferes and competes with these systems as a kind of mutation. It cannot be under-
stood in isolation but as part of these wider practice-based ecosystems of information
and communication. As noted by Bigo, the dierence in such data-based governance is
not made by the emergence of new digital techniques per se but the ways in which
they are put to use:
Firstly, they can be used in support of the more traditional framework of conjectural reason-
ing in order to provide necessary evidence for the judiciary. Secondly, they can also be used
to impose a preventive and predictive reasoning. The logics and mechanisms of reasoning
that are specic to each universe and its actors be it the police, military, or communications
are therefore to be considered more important than the technologies themselves. (Bigo
et al. 2019, p. 119)
In The emergence of iBorder, tzsch outlinesthe systemic consequences of the interaction
between biometrics, dataveillance, predictive analytics, and robotics in border control.
Table 1. Iterations of technocracy in security governance.
486 B. O. MARTINS ET AL.
In accordance with the above accounts of the preventive and predictive reasoning of algo-
cratic governance, he sums up these as follows:
Juridical and disciplinary aspects produce obedient and docile individuals through such
mechanisms as biometric identication, trustedtraveler programmes, and ubiquitous
(self-)surveillance, as well as the constant threat of decelerating searches, detention, and ulti-
mately death. At the same time, a technologically facilitated biopolitical component draws
upon algorithm-based predictive analytics and robotics to regulate ows of categories by
identifying implied norms against which suspicious deviations can be measured, thus not
only predicting and potentially preventing the occurrence of threatening patterns and com-
pensating for their eects, but also framing and predisposing the very performances through
which such patterns are brought forth and made relevant in the rst place. (Pötzsch 2015,
p. 115)
However, as we saw from the realpolitikof digital borderwork, isolating these cultural
techniques of bordering in emergent control societiesfrom the analogue practices in
which they are embedded from the level of policy-making and jurisdiction to their enact-
ment at the borders creates a false image of an autonomous border algocracy. In spite
of the expansion, interoperability and extra-territorialization that result from digitalisation,
there is more continuity with preceding practices than it seems when we zoom into the
algorithmic decision-making of technologies in isolation. Even AI-based decision-
making with humans o-the-loopinvolves close interaction with related human prac-
tices, and when part of a governance apparatus, they will not be devised without close
supervision at a meta-looplevel. This does not necessarily mean that they are more legit-
imate, however, but rather that the algocratic dimension of digitalized sovereigntymust
be analysed as part of a wider political sociology of the practices. There is still an element
of algocracy involved, but exactly how and to which extent remains an empirical question.
In his study of the digitalisation of EU border regimes, Bigo describes the emergence of
a new guild of digital technologies that introduces
de facto new playersin the (in)security eld in Europe who have their own politics, con-
nected with their own visions of the world order, their own interests, and specic habitus
or dispositions dierent from the military, the police or the border guards. (Bigo 2020, p. 75)
Rather than dissolving in the wake of repeated failures of new systems he describes how
the guild thrives from such failures due to what may be described as a hypocritic oath:
that failures of digital systems are to be resolved through further digitalisation. Being
similar to the original meaning of algocracy in the work of Aneesh, this oath stems
from the prevalence of a digital rationale in which the problems to be addressed are
understood as being of a digital nature in the rst place rather than political, juridical
or economic. Following the logic of techno-solutionism advanced by Morozov (2013),
Trauttmansdorand Felt call this expansion of digital databases digital solutionism, but
also point out that these processes of rebordering can also be seen as reaction for-
mations to cross-border mobility(Trauttmansdorf and Felt 2021, p. 2).
In the context of EU borderwork, the digital data, software, and infrastructures that are
to be controlled through the ght for digital sovereigntyare thus just as political as the
sovereignty through which they are to be controlled. Drawing on the work of Kitchin,
Zarsky, amongst others, Danaher is concerned about the growth in algocratic systems
that are based on predictive or descriptive data-mining algorithms which is a well-
described concern in the eld of border management (Amoore 2006, Pötzsch 2015).
EUROPEAN SECURITY 487
Danaher describes this threatas stemming from a combination of the hiddenness and, in
particular, the opacity, of algorithmic governance. With Morozov, he describes how algor-
ithms that are introduced in the service of well-established goals like security, health or
economy may eventually take control of human agency and autonomy when being
intransparent in this manner. Against the backdrop of EU borderwork where multiple
databases are to be combined with multiple systems for the automated assessment of
the identity, personality and risk level of travellers, we propose to add the excess of
digital data to the list of algocratic threats i.e. when big data is too big, in a way that
defeats its purpose and threatens the autonomy of individuals and political institutions.
4.3. Sovereignty over the digital: implications of EU borderwork
From this analysis, we see how an agenda of digital sovereignty in the context of EU bor-
derwork is bound to have political repercussions beyond the mere control of digital tech-
nologies. Firstly, it reinforces a sovereignty that is hegemonic and exclusive in expanding,
making interoperable, and deterritorializing EU external borders. This may be self-evident
but the notion of digital sovereigntytends to be used without questioning which kind
of sovereignty is at stake. Secondly, the digitalis far from neutral in this context; it entails
a dimension of algocracy to which no eort at controlling the digital can be neutral. On
the one hand, such eorts may bolster the agency, actors and rationales of technocratic
algocracy. On the other, they may also constrain such tendencies by insisting on human
control and democratic standards.
In eect, we may infer that the enactment of sovereignty (sovereignty by digital means),
practices of digitalisation (implying sovereignty of the digital) and the ght for digital sover-
eignty (sovereignty over the digital) are interconnected in ways that are both complemen-
tary and contradictory. The sovereignty of states and organisations is evidently a
prerequisite for their pursuit of digital sovereignty. Yet, the political and economic drivers
of sovereignty may also undermine digital sovereignty if, for instance, entailing a reliance
on foreign digital systems and providers. An example of such reliance is the EU-US Data
Protection Shield that presumably enhanced European sovereignty while weakening its
digital sovereignty. Moreover, at the EU level, nationalist agendas of digital sovereignty
may undermine EU sovereignty both digital and analogue. And democratic policies of
digital sovereignty may counter authoritarian sovereignty of states and organisations.
Finally, the possibilities for democratic supervision and accountability are also (nega-
tively) impacted by the prevalence of data-based governance. As noted by Iliadis and
Russo (2016) on their work proposing a critical data studies research agenda, data-
based governance has led to the identication of social data problems and there is a
need to design critical frameworks for addressing them. The application of social solutions
to increase data literacy is also crucially important and includes datactivism and viewing
data as interpretive and rhetorical assemblages in the construction of science, institutions,
and citizens(2016, p. 5). Indeed, as we saw in the opening paragraphs of this article, the
civil society has a very important role in the contestation of policy and regulatory devel-
opments promoting increased digitalisation, at the borders and beyond. Data politics is
technically so complex that it is dicult to expect that contestation of measures can
come from the usual institutions that ensure checks and balances (namely, national par-
liaments and the EU Parliament). The civil society contestation of the expansion of
488 B. O. MARTINS ET AL.
EURODAC, for example, is precisely what should be expected going forward: only a
handful of specialised NGOs, researchers and civil society organisations have developed
the skills to fully grasp the broad implications of this digitalisation of sovereignty in
terms of fundamental rights, privacy and security politics.
5. Conclusion and way forward
In 2008, Adler-Nissen and Gammeltoft-Hansen (2008, p. 2) argued that we were witnes-
sing an expansion of the playing eld relating to sovereignty. More than a decade
later, we can conclude that the digital realm is one of the sharpest manifestations of
this expansion. In the article, we have shown how the growing digitalisation of EU border-
work takes place in a socio-technical assemblage made of the dierent systems, digital
and material, its technologies, hardware and software, high- and low-tech, various
border professionals, and their everyday practices. We have shown how this growing digi-
talisation can be characterised by three dynamics: expansion, interoperability, and extra-
territorialization.
These processes have dierent implications in what regards sovereignty over the
digital, sovereignty of the digital, and sovereignty by digital means. Digitalisation may evi-
dently enhance digital sovereignty if being within the remit of sovereign control, but it
may also undermine it in several ways. Firstly, policies of digitalisation tend to be
driven by commercial and political agendas that leave little room for their sovereignica-
tion. As we showed in the sections above, private actors are key providers of the techno-
logical infrastructure; can this reliance on private actors constitute a challenge to actual
(public) EU sovereignty? Secondly, digital technologies of governance may undermine
human control hence (analogue) sovereignty over the digital by relying on hidden,
opaque or excessive data and models. As a consequence, the ght for digital sovereignty
may constrain digitalisation based on foreign companies as well as the introduction of
digital techniques beyond human control.
Does this imply that the EU can achieve digital sovereignty in the realm of border and
migration governance if these dynamics are taken into regard? And would it be possible
to pursue a less hegemonic or algocratic form of digital sovereignty in the EU? The answer
to both questions seems to be no. EU politics of sovereignty and digitalisation involve a
range of interests and agendas beyond the remit of EU regulations in the digital eld.
Hence, there is no realistic actor or institution in which a pure and depoliticized
policy of digital sovereignty could take place. As Floridi maintains, digital sovereignty is
not about total control but degrees of inuence in an epochal struggle not only of all
against all, but also of anyone allied with anyonein a setting of variable alliances chan-
ging according to interests and opportunities(Floridi 2020, pp. 371). The main protago-
nists in this struggle are not only states but corporations and citizens, and the distribution
of power among and between these depend on geopolitical as well as ideological con-
ditions. As we have seen, EU policies for the enhancement of digital sovereignty
involve an alliance between EU institutions, its member states and European corporations
not as a source of total control but of reducing the reliance on other states and corpor-
ations in the digital realm (see also Farrand and Carrapico 2022). Thus, EU policymakers or
legislators cannot simply choose which notions of digital or sovereignty they are to adopt.
EUROPEAN SECURITY 489
Digital technologies of governance have inherent algocratic features, and EU sovereignty
is inherently hegemonic unless a dramatic shift is made at the centre of European politics.
Indeed, understanding the socio-political dimensions of these digital systems remains
central for engaging critically with them. For example, whereas there is wide discussion
about correcting biases in algorithms that govern dierent areas of social life, including
migration, we argue that the problem is much more complex than that: there is not a
basic EU policy line on how to treat migrants fairly. On paper, EU policies may be
rather balanced, but, in practice, it comes down to the policies of the member states
and EU eorts in supporting them through EU agencies such as Frontex. EU eorts at a
fair distribution of refugees across the Member States are failing for dierent reasons
pertaining more broadly to the diculties of cooperating in the area of migration policies,
and the fear of each member state of being slightly more accommodating to receiving
migrants than their neighbour and this means that the biases that permeate algor-
ithm-based decision-making do not deviate from an unbiased, fair baseline. There is no
fair baseline to return once the digital biases are corrected, and therefore a focus on cor-
recting biases in algorithms will always fall short from giving the EU migration manage-
ment the fair character that it lacks.
Finally, our empirical analysis shows that the digitalisation of EU borderwork is not just
a matter of migration but, indeed, a fundamental vector of the EU security architecture.
Border management is an area where dierent agendas overlap and intersect, from secur-
ity to development, from migration to trade and innovation. As digital-based governance
permeates borderwork in increasingly complex ways, our understanding of what Euro-
pean security is, how it impacts people, and how it can be contested needs to further
engage with the literature that puts the socio-politics of data at the centre of the analysis.
Disclosure statement
No potential conict of interest was reported by the author(s).
Funding
This work was supported by H2020 Security [grant number 787123] and Norwegian Research
Council [grant number 262565].
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