With respect to security policy, the least one may say is that the European Union and its member states do not lack for ideas. The European Union’s borders are governed by a plethora of measures and apparatuses with an equal number of obscure acronyms: SIS, the Schengen Information System, assembles data on wanted or disappeared persons; VIS is the information system concerning visa applications; EURODAC is a fingerprint database for the administrative management of asylum applications.
On April 14, 2016, the European Parliament decided to lengthen this list by adopting the passenger name record, or PNR. Its objective? To collect 19 different types of information from airline companies on travelers — from the price of their ticket to their seat number. Not to be outdone, the European Commission has pulled a new version of “Smart Borders” out of its hat — a project it has supported since 2013, but which had been utterly rejected by Parliament. The Smart Borders measure would authorize the entries and exits of all third-party nationals admitted inside the Schengen area for a short stay — 90 days maximum within a 180-day period — to be registered and would be accompanied by border automation to attack identity fraud.
Once they are interconnected, these information systems would constitute many links in a single web of control and surveillance of individuals. It would be a web instead of walls that nonetheless seeks to fulfill the same function: to remedy Europe’s problems in the face of its two major [purported] crises, the terrorist and migration threats. “Data-sharing links the two,” explained Dimitris Avramopoulos, European commissioner for migration, internal affairs and citizenship, when he unveiled the text of the Smart Borders law in April. “Our border guards, customs agents, police and judicial authorities must have access to the necessary data.”
The Commission keeps promoting this “Smart Borders” idea in spite of the aversion of certain members of Parliament. “We have already voted ’no’ once against the PNR and Smart Borders since we were skeptical of these megalomaniac projects — as much for their fiscal implications as for those resulting from a massive collection of data,” retorts Sophia in ’t Veld, the Dutch Member of the European Parliament (MEP) and vice-chair of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe. “However, these texts come back for consideration, with pressure from certain member states to vote them in.”
Manufacturers Primed for Action
That France is eager to push for the successful conclusion of this issue is attested to by French Prime Minister Manuel Valls’ arrival in Strasbourg during the vote on the PNR. Not only has the French state itself been a victim of terrorism, but it also supports its corporate jewels, specifically Safran, which is at the front of the line to win the bidding and implement the data system for airline passengers in Europe. Morpho, Safran’s security subsidiary, already controls two markets: those of France and Estonia. In fact, national PNR systems already exist in 14 countries. To finance these measures, the European Commission had already invested 50 million euros even before the European PNR had been voted in.
The amounts at stake and manufacturers’ interests behind Smart Borders are even more hotly debated than the PNR since these new borders would necessitate the erection of special kiosks equipped with biometric tools (e-gates), which all the states included in the free circulation area would have to purchase. In France, 133 Schengen border points could be involved, including 86 airports, 37 ports and 10 train stations. Considering that the cost of each e-gate is estimated to be between 40,000 and 150,000 euros, the investment is not negligible!
The first Smart Borders proposal calculated the project’s cost at 1.1 billion euros. That provoked an outcry within the European Parliament in 2013. Since then, to pacify that ire, the Commission has used a sleight of hand. According to its latest calculation, the cost could finally be brought down to 480 million euros... except that the Commission simultaneously allocated 791 million euros for the program in its 2014-20 budget, even before the directive was voted on. “In fact, to know how much this will cost us, we’d have to wait for manufacturers’ response to requests for bids and, above all, conclude the contracts,” notes Krum Garkov, executive director of eu-LISA, the agency created to implement Smart Borders.
Although this system is still in the proposal phase, the appeal to defense industry giants has already been launched. “To improve European security, we need to stimulate our manufacturers!” trumpeted Armand Nachef, from the French base for the European research program Horizon 2020, on November 17 at Le Bourget. This public service representative was addressing the businessmen present for the domestic security trade show Milipol, where weapons, drones, cameras, equipment for the maintenance of order and bullet-proof vests were displayed.
On the Menu: Iris, Facial and Digital Recognition
At the other end of the exhibition hall, those words did not go unnoticed as a Morpho employee proudly proposed to show you around a typical installation of a hyper-securitized border: “There’s the iris recognition scanner. At present, we’ve sold them mostly in Asia, but they’ll be coming here.” He showed off the “smart” door, a glass airlock able to verify your identity in less than 20 seconds — two or three times faster than today when you deal with an immigration agent in a booth. Morpho has supplied automatic doors, as well as facial and fingerprint recognition tools, to the Cherbourg port, the Paris North train station and Roissy International Airport.
The European Commission has been investing in research programs for several years. Between 2007 and 2013, through the security arm of the FP7 program — predecessor of Horizon 2020 — more than 51 million euros have been paid to consortia, often managed by the businesses associated with public laboratories and public actors, to reflect on the management of these new borders. The European authority has already invested over 21 million euros in Horizon 2020’s ongoing program, “Secure Societies” — sums not included in the Smart Borders budget.
A small French company has used this manna to launch itself. “We have received exactly 328,251 euros,” attests Raphaël Rocher, manager of Sécalliance sécurités informatiques. “That gave us what we needed to start up.” The company was created in 2009, at the same time as a five-year research project, EFFISEC, began. With other partners, the company is developing kiosks that allow the passenger to check in, verify their passports and perform a biometric control that compares a photo taken by the terminal with the one registered on the passport chip. Once this stage of validation is complete, the kiosk opens for another control by a millimetric camera.
The first beneficiary of the subsidy paid out in the framework of EFFISEC is yet again Morpho, the Safran subsidiary, which received 1.8 million euros. Safran refused to answer any of BASTA!’s questions in connection with this article. The company has already coordinated half the security projects at airport borders in the FP7 program framework and received 4 million euros for that work.
Multinationals Functioning as Judges and Participants
Some researchers and NGOs point out the more discreet role played by certain companies the Commission consults. The advisory group for the FP7 research program included representatives of the big security companies, among which were Morpho and Thalès. “Too often, one realizes that the projects selected are organized by the companies which are also in the advisory groups supposed to give their opinions on the projects proposed or on the orientations to take with respect to security policy! By arranging back-to-back receipts, these companies receive billions from the Commission,” deplores Stéphanie Demblon, a member of Agir pour la Paix [Act for Peace, an advocacy organization] which poses the question of conflicts of interest.
Demblon offers lobbying tours of Brussels and shows curious citizens that the offices of the big defense and security companies are located in the same quarter as European Community institutions. “The Commission justifies this recourse to companies by saying it doesn’t have the necessary experts and that these groups do. Therefore, why should the Commission do without?” she adds bitterly.
A Questionable Utility
Are these investments drawing the contours of a safer Europe? Many doubt it. “We were presented with the PNR as a miracle cure, but it’s nothing of the kind,” declares Emmanuel Maurel, a French Socialist MEP. “Since everyone is worried, people cling to these measures of questionable effectiveness. So while murderers go by car, we create a data base on airline traffic. To know what a passenger eats, with whom he travels, serves no purpose. It would be better to invest in human intelligence than in such an outsized system.”
With respect to Smart Borders, the Member of Parliament and Vice-President of the Greens-European Free Alliance, Ska Keller, is even more trenchant: “I am waiting to know what problem this Smart Borders idea is supposed to solve. The European Commission is incapable of telling us. Moreover, we cannot suspect every European citizen of being a terrorist, but we allow ourselves to do so with others? It’s not okay. Besides, staying longer in a place [i.e. within the Schengen area] does not necessarily point to criminal motives.”
According to la Cimade the French organization that focuses on foreigners’ rights, the Smart Borders system, on top of everything else, is likely to create discrimination between different categories of foreigners. “Europe will facilitate the passage of low ’risk of immigration’ travelers — that is, those from rich countries,” deems Gipsy Beley, Cimade’s spokeswoman.
“We Should See What Can Be Effected in the Short Term”
For some, the choice of automation in the Smart Borders framework is, perhaps, not the best. “The doors make fewer mistakes than humans,” attests Prof. Luuk Spreeuwers of the University of Twente, Netherlands, who studied the system already in place at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport. “However, other problems arise, such as passport photos of inadequate quality for facial recognition.” There, once again, the secrecy culture carries the day. While the pilot phase is encouraging, with a 98 percent rate of authentication, that of the first years of use remains confidential. Impossible to know whether, confronted with a greater number of travelers, the doors are still reliable.
Before undertaking new projects — frequently pushed by the market — perhaps we should begin by learning our lessons from the past? “We should see instead what can be effected in the short term,” says European Data Protection Supervisor Giovanni Buttarelli. “We shouldn’t forget that the SIS has been in place since the 1990s, and 25 years later, we are still in the process of improving it. From SIS 1, we’ve gone to SIS 1+, then SIS 2. That package is only now achieving maturity. So it’s not a given that the next project will be effective before 20 years. What do we do in the meantime?”
Protect Personal Data
Another concern: respect for the numerous data on citizens collected this way. How will the data be used? Where is the data stored? For how long? When it opposed the PNR and Smart Borders proposals the first time, the European Parliament made clear to the Commission that it would not vote in those texts as long as there were no precise answers to these questions.
With respect to the PNR, two strict conditions were laid down: that a group of laws favorable to data protection be voted in concurrently and that a balance be struck between the fight against terrorism and privacy protection. So the Commission came back with a “Data Protection Package” that Parliament subsequently endorsed. The day after the vote, the Social Democrats congratulated themselves in a communiqué for having “ensured reinforcement of the rights of internet users (…) The right of erasure, paths of recourse, information on how data is handled, a framework for the transfer of Europeans’ data to third countries, strict limitations on profiling, sanctions in cases of failure to follow the rules.” Nonetheless, as MEP Maurel concedes, although the text is supposed to make improvements, “we need to work some more on this issue, since protection of private life is a real headache today.”
Toward a “Pan-European Surveillance System?”
The Smart Borders plan presents still more problems. The management of personal data, in this instance, remains, at the very least, a bit hazy. The data are to be kept six months, but how they are to be kept and what happens to them after that term is not spelled out, which leads Buttarelli to think the Commission’s goals are contradictory: “The Commission maintains it wants to facilitate travel by maintaining secure borders, ensure that travelers may move freely, respect fundamental rights, but conduct this project on a low-cost basis. That’s too much at the same time to be realistic.”
Above all, a larger question remains: Aren’t “smart borders” a step toward a “pan-European system of surveillance,” as Chris Jones, a member of the NGO Statewatch fears? The database on travelers will be huge, including everything from their movements in the Schengen area to their biometric data, all — depending on the vote of European MPs — possibly accessible by national police forces, Europol and Frontex! This comes at the risk of establishing a “not very appealing society,” warns Socialist MEP Maurel. When the Smart Borders text is voted on between now and the end of the year, will the European Parliament oppose it again?
Aline Fontaine et Morgane Remy
Translated by Leslie Thatcher. Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.
Note: This translation has been lightly edited and adapted from Basta!
Illustration : CC Ophelia Noor / Owni