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Dispatch from ISA 2024: Ana Visan’s blog from the field

Photo by Ana Visan

By: Ana Visan, PhD in Global Governance

My ISA experience was focused on panels and conversations taking place at the intersection of international politics, critical border studies, and science and technology studies. This post highlights three such discussions which are not meant to be representative of my peers’ entire presentations or their complex and critical analyses, but rather to highlight a few points that show some of the directions this scholarship is heading towards.

Clemens Binder, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Copenhagen, presented his work on the effects public controversies can have on the regulation of emerging technologies in border management. He discussed iBorderCtrl, a project that uses artificial intelligence to discern whether people are lying to border agents by analyzing micro-facial movements. iBorderCtrl was the first EU-funded R&D project that engendered a wider political debate through contestations against it in the press and in the European Parliament.

One of the effects was the creation of the EU AI Act, which rates AI applications into three risk factors and is the first act to address AI ethics. However, this might be insufficient. Despite the fact the controversy surrounding techno-solutionism in border management is framed around the racialized logics that are built into it, at the policy level the issue gets framed as a solvable one: if the data quality is improved, if the algorithms are improved, then these technologies could work. Clemens’ research showcases the need for public scrutiny of emerging technologies used for border control, while at the same time acknowledging the limitations of such scrutiny.

Jamie Duncan, a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto, spoke about the Border Five’s (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, UK, US) adoption of border crossing mobile applications in an effort to minimize interactions between border officials and people on the move. His case studies were either border pre-declaration applications, like ArriveCan, or electronic travel authorization applications.

His conclusions came from looking at user reviews’ content of these applications, which broadly cover functionality (e.g. passport scanners), error flagging, the temporality of their experiences, like wasting time or waiting in line, and broader political concerns. He argued that such applications are reconfiguring border governance interactions from in-person to digital experiences that occur outside the nation-state and in this way contribute to the de-territorialization of border control. A thought-provoking conclusion from Duncan was that we conceptualize border governance as something that happens to people, but that these applications are changing that by asking people to participate in border governance.

Matthias Leese, Assistant Professor at ETH Zürich, spoke about the politics of data quality and mechanisms of engineering trust in flawed data. He looked specifically at the European Union with its 27 member states and the multiplicity of databases it employs in migration governance and showed that the quality of the data being fed into these databases from the local level (to then be federated) is flawed on many levels: the inappropriate use of data fields, inconsistencies, incorrect data formats, and others.

His research delved into the ways the European Union is attempting to engineer trust in this data and revealed two main approaches. One is led by the European Commission and consists of a three-tiered classification system for data quality that would determine which data can become part of the supra-national databases. The second comes from the European Council who is attempting a reverse strategy: to control how data is recorded, developed, and under what parameters from local levels. This analysis of data quality, Leese argued, showed how technology can be framed and made governable in specifically political ways.

These were conversations that opened doors to the many questions that remain unanswered when it comes to how technology is used in border management. How do we ensure accountability? What are some ways to establish regulation around emerging technology? How is technology shifting processes of (de-)territorialization? How do political entities deal with faulty data and what does that say about political power? I hope to see these being pursued in publications in the coming year and at next year’s ISA conference.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the BSIA, its students, faculty, staff, or Board of Directors.

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