Spark

Drone surveillance and crowdfunded ransom: How tech is changing borders and those who cross them

Millions of people are on the move today, in the biggest forced displacement since the Second World War. And unlike in decades past, new technologies are changing the narratives of their movement — both by reinforcing and extending borders, and acting as a lifeline for those trying to cross them. 

Legal and ethical frameworks needed before widespread border control technology use, says expert

A teen looks at a smartphone while lying down inside a tent.
A Ukrainian teen looks at a smartphone while resting inside a tent at a refugee camp in the Iztapalapa borough of Mexico City in May. Smartphones are a lifeline for people fleeing their home countries in search of safety, says journalist Sally Hayden. (Marco Ugarte/The Associated Press)

Migration has always been a part of human history, but today tens of millions of people are on the move in the biggest forced displacement since the Second World War.

The UN Refugee Agency reported that by the end of 2021, 89.3 million people globally were forcibly displaced due to conflicts, violence, fear of persecution and human rights violations. The war in Ukraine pushed that number to more than 100 million people in 2022, meaning that one in every 78 people on the planet is on the move.

And unlike in decades past, new technologies are changing the narratives of their movement — both by reinforcing and extending borders, and acting as a lifeline for those trying to cross them. 

"Digital technologies — especially technologies of surveillance, technologies of control of human mobility such as those of drones and AI systems that track human mobility — [are] being used to change this perception and this function of the border, a stable point in the map, and to turn it into an expansive system of control," said Myria Georgiou, co-author of The Digital Border: Migration, Technology, Power.

According to Georgiou, this system shifts borders past a nation's territory outlined on a map, and beyond the border checkpoint. "People who move are very often surveilled throughout their whole lives," she told Spark host Nora Young. 

For example, she said, biometric data from someone in a refugee camp in Lebanon can be shared with authorities in their subsequent destinations.

"If they try to go into Europe, this data will be used by authorities of a European state," Georgiou said. "And then if they move into a European city, the same data will be added to a data profile that collects information about where people live, if they work, if they have access to health or education."

Part of what makes such extensive surveillance possible is the fact that migrants and refugees today have little choice but to rely heavily on smartphones, GPS and social media to make their trips. They arrange transportation and temporary shelter at the new destination using social networks and messenger apps like WhatsApp and Telegram, and map out their routes on Google Maps.

For some, a smartphone is the only means of sending out a distress call, according to journalist Sally Hayden.

"I spoke to a lot of people who would go without eating to be able to pay for [mobile] data," Hayden said. "They'd risk their lives to protect their phone, because they know if the phone is not on them, that that could be a death sentence."

The faces of refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine are illuminated by the light from a smartphone as they join a line approaching the border with Poland in Shehyni, Ukraine, in March. Migrants and asylum-seekers use social media and messenger apps to connect with family and essential services during their journeys. (Daniel Cole/The Associated Press)

Hayden's work focuses on migration, conflict, and humanitarian crises. She documents the journeys of people survived one of the deadliest migration routes across the central Mediterranean in her book My Fourth Time, We Drowned: Seeking Refuge on the World's Deadliest Migration Route.

She told Spark that while social media can be the only way for the migrants to update their loved ones, many choose not to share their real struggles. 

"They genuinely don't want their family members to know that they're suffering," she said. "On their social media accounts, there might be very little information, or they might be posting things about, you know, what a good time they're having somewhere. And it might not be the actual place that they're in."

Smugglers, meanwhile, can use social media to attract desperate migrants by presenting their routes and services as being far safer and more glamorous than they actually are.

"They'll post, 'You can travel in a lovely luxury boat,' and then the person will arrive, and it'll turn out that it's a flimsy dinghy that's quite dangerous," she said. 

The ubiquity of social media has also led to practices such as crowdfunding ransom, where smugglers encourage migrants to seek support online to fund their perilous journeys.

"That means that the amounts demanded have actually risen, because this way of collecting money is available," she said. 

Border privacy a concern for everyone

Lawyer and researcher Petra Molnar says it's important to establish legal and humanitarian frameworks to regulate new technology many countries are using to monitor or enforce their borders. 

Molnar studies technology currently being used at borders, such as drone surveillance and sound cannons to deter people from crossing, and experimental tools like lie detectors powered by artificial intelligence. 

But migrants, especially refugees and asylum seekers who may be arriving into a country illegally, encounter surveillance technologies at many points in their journey.

"Things like voice recognition software for refugee applications, and all sorts of different ways that a person might be tracked if they're, for example, facing immigration, detention or deportation, such as ankle monitors," Molnar said.

"There's a huge appetite [by border service agencies] to be using these technologies kind of all along a person's journey. And yet, the law and oversight mechanisms have not caught up."

An equitable and secure application of border technology can benefit people beyond migrants and refugees — including tourists and others travelling for leisure or work.

Examples of this aren't difficult to find: earlier this year, the Canadian Border Services Agency discussed plans to introduce facial recognition technology, advance customs declarations and electronic gates in the country's airports to speed up the border crossing process.

Privacy advocates raised concerns about the security costs for these plans, saying it's important for travellers to consent before providing their information and to know how the information may be used by the government.

Molnar says that this is why privacy at the border should be everyone's concern. "Really, it's kind of a global conversation about what kind of society we want to live in, and what types of technological interventions we are okay with."


Written by Olsy Sorokina with files from CBC News. Produced by McKenna Hadley-Burke and Nora Young.

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