Borders, migrants and failed humanitarism

Some of the most chilling biometric systems we have seen are those deployed against people on the move.

Whether it’s for migration, tourism, to see their family, for work, or to seek asylum, people on the move rely on border guards/police and governments to grant them permission to enter.

It should be obvious that they have a right to be treated humanely and with dignity while doing so. However, we know that non-EU nationals traveling into the EU are frequently treated as a frontier for experimentation with biometric technologies.

Governments and tech companies exploit their power to treat people on the move as lab rats for the development of invasive technologies under the guise of “innovation” or “security”. These, sometimes, are subsequently deployed as part of general monitoring systems.

Experimenting on people on the move

The authorities and companies that are deploying these technologies exploit the secrecy and discretion that surrounds immigration decisions. In result, they experiment with technologies that are worryingly pseudo-scientific and with some that rely on discredited and harmful theories like phrenology.

For instance, real examples from Europe include:

1. The analysis of people’s “micro-expressions” to supposedly detect if they are lying

2. Testing on voices and bones as a way to interrogate their asylum claims.

Experimenting on: people in need of humanitarian aid

Similar patterns to border administration are increasingly being seen in the humanitarian aid context. Aid agencies or organisations sometimes see biometric identification systems as a silver bullet for managing complex humanitarian programmes without properly assessing the risks and the rights implications. This is often driven by the unrealistic promises made by biometric tech companies.

In the context of humanitarian action, people who are relying on aid are rarely in a position to refuse to provide their biometric data, meaning that any ‘consent’ given cannot be considered legitimate.

Therefore, their acceptance could never form a legal basis for these experiments, because they are forced by the circumstance to accept. For people who are not in this position, it would never be legal to act in this way. In humanitarian aid, people’s fragility is exploited. There are also major concerns about how such data are stored. For instance, there are still many questions about how it may be used in ways that are actually incredibly harmful to the people they are claiming to help. If these concerns were not enough, such practices also have a high chance of leading to mass surveillance and other rights violations by creating enormous databases of sensitive data.

Paragraph: Governments and companies treat people who are in need of protection instead as if they are liars, test subjects, or intrinsically suspects just for being migrants. In the right bottom corner there's a blue fence.


Not only are these unreliable tests often unnecessarily invasive and undignified, but they treat people who are in need of protection instead as if they are liars, test subjects, or intrinsically suspicious just for being a migrant.

Further more, EU and EU countries fund heavily this. A lot of the money that goes into funding these projects comes from EU agencies or Member States, for example through the EU’s Horizon2020 programme. In their public database, you can read about how EU money is funding biometric experiments that would not be out of place in a science fiction film.

This is happening in tandem with a rise in funding for the EU’s Frontex border agency, which has been accused of violently militarising European borders and persecuting people on the move.


In Italy, the police have used biometric mass surveillance against people at Italy’s borders and have attempted to roll out a real-time system to monitor potentially the whole population with the aim of targeting migrants and asylum seekers:

In the Netherlands, the government has created a huge pseudo-criminal database of personal data which can be used for performing facial recognition solely for the reason that those people are foreign: [p.67]

In Greece, the European Commission funded a notorious project called iBorderCTRL which used artificial intelligence and emotion recognition to predict whether people in immigration interviews are lying or not. The project has been widely criticised for having no scientific basis and for exploiting people’s migration status to try out untested technologies:

News and reports:

Learn more about the different ways that biometric mass surveillance affects us, and SIGN the ECI!

European Citizen's Initiative

Reclaim your Face

ReclaimYourFace is a movement led by civil society organisations across Europe:

Access Now ARTICLE19 Bits of Freedom CCC Defesa dos Direitos Digitais (D3) Digitalcourage Digitale Gesellschaft CH Digitale Gesellschaft DE Državljan D EDRi Electronic Frontier Finland Hermes Center for Transparency and Digital Human Rights Homo Digitalis IT-Political Association of Denmark IuRe La Quadrature du Net Liberties Metamorphosis Foundation Panoptykon Foundation Privacy International SHARE Foundation
In collaboration with our campaign partners:

AlgorithmWatch AlgorithmWatch/CH All Out Amnesty International Anna Elbe Aquilenet Associazione Luca Coscioni Ban Facial Recognition Europe Big Brother Watch Certi Diritti Chaos Computer Club Lëtzebuerg (C3L) CILD D64 Danes je nov dan Datapanik Digitale Freiheit DPO Innovation Electronic Frontier Norway European Center for Not-for-profit Law (ECNL) European Digital Society Eumans Football Supporters Europe Fundación Secretariado Gitano (FSG) Forum InformatikerInnen für Frieden und gesellschaftliche Verantwortung Germanwatch German acm chapter Gesellschaft Fur Informatik (German Informatics Society) GONG Hellenic Association of Data Protection and Privacy Hellenic League for Human Rights info.nodes irish council for civil liberties JEF, Young European Federalists Kameras Stoppen Ligue des droits de L'Homme (FR) Ligue des Droits Humains (BE) LOAD e.V. Ministry of Privacy Privacy first logo Privacy Lx Privacy Network Projetto Winston Smith Reporters United Saplinq Science for Democracy Selbstbestimmt.Digital STRALI Stop Wapenhandel The Good Lobby Italia UNI-Europa Unsurv Vrijbit Wikimedia FR Xnet

Reclaim Your Face is also supported by:

Jusos Piratenpartei DE Pirátská Strana

MEP Patrick Breyer, Germany, Greens/EFA
MEP Marcel Kolaja, Czechia, Greens/EFA
MEP Anne-Sophie Pelletier, France, The Left
MEP Kateřina Konečná, Czechia, The Left

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