Select Page


Technology (especially A.I. and the internet of things) will be proffered as the remedy to post-brexit border anxiety. Without ethics by design and privacy by design experience suggests it will be a damaging fudge.

Brexit’s Border

Brexit was a shock. The thought of the Troubles, like a candle flickering back to flame, returned to most of our minds. Like many other Irish folk we had no idea – and still don’t if we are being honest – of where the Brexit lark will end up and how much damage it might do to decades of slow and erratic peace building.

Initially the media imagination was captured with the idea of Dublin airport as some Nauru-esque filter for potential UK visitors.

Thankfully Donald Tusk‘s general principles – and Enda Kenny’s stated position – is for no hard border with Northern Ireland.

  • 11. The Union has consistently supported the goal of peace and reconciliation enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement, and continuing to support and protect the achievements, benefits and commitments of the Peace Process will remain of paramount importance. In view of the unique circumstances on the island of Ireland, flexible and imaginative solutions will be required, including with the aim of avoiding a hard border, while respecting the integrity of the Union legal order. In this context, the Union should also recognise existing bilateral agreements and arrangements between the United Kingdom and Ireland which are compatible with EU law.

Despite the clarity of this statement, some measure of tracking will be unavoidable between the two countries. One is inside and the other is outside the European Union. Traversing the boundary between these states will include checks and identification.

I understand why the ‘hard border’ – ‘soft border’ dichotomy would take centre stage. The Irish social imagination can still conjure up images of soldiers at the borders.  A soft border would not be acceptable to the securocratic state in London unless all UK citizens in Northern Ireland consented to a form of quarantine. A hard border could decimate cross-border trade and imperil the settlement in the North.

There is a third increasingly likely resolution of some of the border problems posed by Brexit: ‘smart borders’.

Technology to the rescue.

Smart Borders

Conor O Reilly (Leeds Uni) gave the heads up to this issue on twitter this week.

The work he references is a really interesting report in Nature by the head of Eticas. Eticas have been working with the EU since 2013 researching and developing the smart border systems. You may have seen phase one already rolling out as e-gates at various E.U. airports in the past twelve months.

The Telegraph is the only source to have mooted ‘smart borders’ as a way around the hard/soft problem. In time, I expect more work to go into softening the ground for a largely surveillance based digital border. The Telegraph suggested that a smart border is the solution to the goods and trade problem between Ireland and the North, I expect its scope to expand beyond that significantly.

So we can check the solutionism box. Political actors will once more look to technology to bail them out of a complex human question. In this instance how to track and filter cross-border travel without physically manning the barricades that could well return Ireland to civil war.

Borders as Processes

Travel is one of the most singularly political acts we can engage in. It is pregnant with privilege (see the amount of countries my Irish passport grants me visa-free access to versus your, say, Korean passport). It brings us into direct contact with the power of states – upon leaving and upon re-entering. We transgress modernist boundaries in ever more elaborate displays.

It is also an expression of the power conferred on or withheld from citizens by their respective states. My crossing a border successfully speaks to my status and the status of my state. Checking my bags and forcing a delay to verify my entitlement is an expression of the power of the state into which I am travelling.

What I thought a border meant was challenged after reading the nature article. Consider:

When our personal data are collected and shared before we board an aeroplane, a border ceases to be a line that separates countries or administrative areas. It becomes a process of monitoring, control and automated decisions. The physical border is increasingly irrelevant because our rights, privileges, relations, characteristics and risk levels are checked all the time.

It rings true that a border is a process. An operation.

It is able to see our leaving in advance, anticipate our dispatch and hand us over to another state for arrival. It is a ghost in the machine of the travel and logistics industries. Schengen was a radical reform of a border – choosing invisibility over visibility withing a large group of countries.

The removal of human guards from borders by the E.U. and others is the final act, not the first, of depersonalising the process of a border.

When nowhere is the border, everywhere is.

Technology to the rescue

This is only possible through technology that integrates the sensory and the analytic. The internet of things and artificial intelligence/machine learning.

Here then a second box can be checked, the rationalisation of a process by technology. This is a process – and it will be pregnant with assumptions and motivations.

Lets look at two toys from the IoT toybox and see what might get included in the ‘smart border’ package.

  1. A connected finger print reader – like the one on your iPhone – is now a mobile border enforcement system. The border is wherever observation and enforcement occur, Belfast city centre or Newry A1/M1.
  2. Image recognition and interrogiation systems. As smarter image sensors are embedded into public spaces – say our streetlights and upgraded CCTV cameras – image/facial recognition programmes can scan and identify transgressions of the border in real time. As the camera relays a car registration at the border it is logged and perhaps the faces of passengers also logged. Multiple databases can be polled to tag the car. Eventually it might extend to the faces as well.

It is not hard to see how technology becomes the answer to a problem no one has properly thought about.

This might get presented as a technological panacea for a sticky border problem. It is a great deal more than that. The technology will operate as it is programmed to and the embedded principles are going to matter a great deal. It is not enough to assure that the trade off for deploying smart devices and tech to decentralise the UK/Ireland border across two entire islands will be technocratic.

Compared with the cost of maintaining a single physical border, the cost of maintaining a ubiquitous incorporeal border is paradoxically lower. Making everywhere the border is easier than a single point. It also provides for expansionary movements toward greater and greater monitoring as security arguments demand.

Land and Air

It seems beyond doubt that the Brexit smart border is going to be dependent on the internet of things and A.I. There is no way of gathering the kind of data a border now runs upon without them.

The primary Brexit context will be land-crossing. The low volume of direct flights between the Republic and Northern Ireland mean that airport border control will fall into the larger negotiation. Goods and people however are traversing the border countless times – a trip from Letterkenny to Dublin can make up to seven crossings AFAIK.

Monitoring the crossings will provide ballast for the push for the forthcoming registration plate database. It will also undergird most efforts to expand the database to cover cars temporarily in the state (if it doesn’t already) from outside of Ireland as a state/security/EU issue.

It will wedge open a debate for linking the photographic data held on your driver’s licence or passport to the border cameras as the price of a porous border crossing.

Can They Build It?

Here is the rub. There is already ample evidence that rolling out the e-gates and smart borders has been done in a way that focuses on technology and cost. At the base of the product design pyramid is what technology can do.

The motivation remains capturing as much information as possible on flow – irrespective of whether as a citizen you are entitled to a minimally invasive check and assumption of innocence – of people and aggregating this material in a database.

The outcome is a discipline system, a space governed by lanes and gates with automatic permission and a permissive openness to surveillance.

In most cases, monitoring people’s movements through digital data — or ‘dataveillance’ — is about keeping gates open rather than closing them. Bona fide travellers should have a seamless experience, free of queueing and distrust — but that is the case only if they preregister to share their personal data and pay for the privilege

The secondary motivation is depersonalisation. Replacing people with technology makes a system significantly more likely to be seen as unimpeachable even in the event it turns up errors. The technology still carries an aura of objectivity. We should know now that it is no better than the humans who design, build and program it.

Eticas were ‘astonished’ by the disregard for ethics and privacy in the rollout of e-gates within the E.U.

We have been startled by the lack of serious assessment, evaluation, risk analysis or attempt to foresee the potential impacts of such changes. Technologies and finance are the EU’s main concerns. The human rights, civil liberties and societal implications of securing borders through data processing, mining and matching are receiving little consideration.

Any Brexit border ‘smart’ solution will have to be built with ethics and privacy as core pillars. It won’t be possible to retro-fit practices and programmes onto a border apparatus. If the border is built on the assumption that innocence has to be proven and not assumed then as much as technology offers to do will be implemented.

When it looks like the Brexit crew can barely put their pants on in the morning, it seems highly unlikely we will end up with a well thought out border programme unless it is pushed on both sides. Instead it could well become a Frankenstein’s monster of available surveillance tech only limited by the imaginations of security apparatus in both states.

Before systems are constructed, an account of respect for the rights, dignity and privacy of travellers will have to be integrated into the design process. Privacy by design will not be sufficient, if the border is going to be this pervasive everywhere and nowhere ethics by design will be essential.

In Discipline and Punish, Foucault discusses the prison as essentially a place of discipline and training rather than punishment. Modern sensibility was toward reform of the person. Brexit is the convenient fissure through which the omniscient border can emerge into our world. It could easily become a disciplinary process, embodying enormous exercises of state power, rather than the bureaucratic checking procedure of modern states.

The challenge will be creating a fair system that doesn’t discriminate or blithely take advantage of technology at the expense of assumptions of privacy and innocence.

If you have any questions please contact us

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Join our mailing list to receive the latest news and updates from our team.

You have Successfully Subscribed!