The border-industrial complex: lobbying for and profiting from increased border security and control

[Presentation at the Security Flows workshop ‘Datafication technologies, counter-power and resistance at the EU Borders‘ – panel ‘Making datafied borders: private technologies, public money’, 6 July 2021]

Today and tomorrow, the European Parliament wil debate and vote on the Integrated Border Management Fund. It is already almost a given that this new instrument to strengthen EU member states’ border security will be adopted. Last December the Parliament and the Council reached a political agreement, clearing the way for spending €6.24 billion over the next seven years on infastructure and equipment for border security and control, training, information exchange with Frontex and between member states, studies, development of new technologies, identification and fingerprinting equipment, IT systems and communication campaigns to sell EU’s deadly border policies to the public.

The new fund will result in further militarisation of the EU’s external borders, which will lead to more violence and pushbacks against people on the move and in pushing them to more dangerous migration routes. It is however, music to the ears of the military and security industry. They will rake in a large part of the billions available, like they did with the funding under the predecessors of the Integrated Border Management Fund: the External Borders Fund (2007-2013) and the Internal Security Fund – Borders (2014-2020), which had about €4.5 billion to spend in total. One big winner was Italian shipbuilding company Fincantiere, which earned over €120 million providing patrol vessels to Greece, Italy and Malta.

The new fund, with its huge budget increase compared to earlier funds, is just one part of the EU’s expanding portfolio and budget for its ‘war on migration’. We have to go back to the early 1990s to trace the roots of the current policies, when the establishment of the Schengen Area coupled the opening up of internal borders with increasing security and control at the external borders. Since then we have witnessed a gradual boosting and militarisation of the whole EU border system, with the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ of 2015 as the trigger for the obsession to stop migration the EU has displayed during the last years.

This is not a coincidence, one of the drivers of these policies is the effective and extensive lobby from the European military and security industry. This industry is constantly presenting new equipment, technologies and services as ‘necessary’ novelties in the fields of border security and control, often warmly embraced by EU and member states’ authorities. Company lobbyists and representatives of lobby organisations like the European Organisation for Security (EOS) regularly meet with EU institutions, including the European Commission, are part of official advisory committees, publish influential proposals, organise meetings between industry, policy-makers and executives and also meet at the plethora of military and security fairs, conferences and seminars

With all this their influence goes deeper than just reaping the benefits of existing policies: military and security companies and their representatives have positioned themselves as the experts on migration and as such have continuously pushed a narrative in which migration is framed as primarily a security problem and people on the move as threats to Europe and the ‘European way of life’.

The success of their lobby is mirrored in the current EU border and migration policies, which are largely based on exactly this narrative. And when something is seen as a security problem, the use of military and security means to deal with it is a logical next step. So, we have seen the deployment of armed forces to borders, the increasing use of military and security equipment at borders, including the rise of autonomous systems such as drones, the expansion of Frontex, including getting its own budget to buy equipment and build a 10,000 person strong armed border force, and the often forced enlistment of non-EU-countries to act as outpost border guards to stop migrants earlier on their journey, the so-called ‘border externalisation’.

All of these developments present new profit opportunities for the military and security industry. And so does another important development that is connected to these steps: the introduction and expansion of large scale data systems for border control, with all kinds of identification technologies and databases containing fingerprints and all kinds of personal information, and the ongoing process to make them interoperable. This goes accompanied with large contracts issued by Frontex and eu-LISA, the Agency for the Operational Management of Large-Scale IT Systems. Together with the rise of new surveillance technologies at the borders, which come together in the EUROSUR system connecting live surveillance pictures of all EU member states and some Northern African countries, and the general concept of ‘smart borders’ we have dubbed this the ‘virtual walls’ of Fortress Europe in a series of research reports by Stop Wapenhandel, the Transnational Institute and Centre Delàs. They exist next to to psychical walls at land borders and the ‘maritime walls’ with Frontex’s and other operations in for example the Mediterranean.

In this field another lobby organisation is exemplary for the close relation between authorities and industry. The European Association for Biometrics (EAB) brings together members from industry, governments and academia, including government, police and identification services from Denmark, Germany, Kosovo, the Netherlands and Norway, as well as companies such as Idemia, Sopra Steria and Thales. Some employees from eu-LISA are also members of the EAB. The Head of the Frontex Research and Development Unit, Edgar Beugels and Krum Garkov, executive director of eu-LISA, are members of its Advisory Council. And until 2019 a Senior Research Officer and manager of the Future of Border Checks project at Frontex was on the EAB board. Every year EAB organises a joint research conference with the Joint Research Centre (JRC) of the European Commission. Both also are co-organisers of the annual International Conference of the Biometrics Special Interest Group.

Looking at the large contracts for EU databases and surveillance systems, it is striking that the same companies repeatedly get follow-up contracts for certain systems. They build on their own technology, work and knowledge and are already experienced in developing, working with and maintaining these systems. This also creates a risk of dependency, however, where these companies acquire a monopoly-like status, and the EU is almost forced to keep working with them even if they overcharge, miss deadlines or fail to observe data-protection regulations.

One company that has won almost one billion euros worth of contracts since 2000 for the development and maintenance of EU’s biometric databases – EURODAC, SIS II, VIS – and providing digital infrastructure to Frontex and eu-LISA is French IT company Sopra Steria. For many of these contracts Sopra Steria teamed up in consortia with for example HP Belgium, Bull and 3M Belgium. Together with French company Idemia, another large player in the field of biometric identification technologies, in 2020 it got a contract with a value of €302 million for the implementation and maintenance of the Biometrics Part of the Entry Exit System and the Future Shared Biometrics Matching System. Sopra Steria’s deep involvement in these systems also has a spin-off effect in securing national contracts. At the launch of SIS II, the company reported that Belgium, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Finland, France, Romania, Slovenia and the UK had contracted it to provide an ‘off-the-shelf solution’ to connect their national system with the central system.

There are many other large contracts. A contract for implementation and maintenance of the Entry Exit System, worth €142 million, was awarded to a consortium of IBM Belgium, Atos Belgium and Leonardo in 2019. A year later, IBM and Leonardo, together with Unisys, Accenture and Wavestone got another €181 million contract from eu-LISA and Frontex for the design and support of core business systems and interoperability components. Other companies that pop up a lot are Spanish consultancy company Everis and French ID company Gemalto, now a part of arms company Thales. And next to contracts the EU disperses a lot of funding for research and innovation in the field of border security and control, with a focus on development and use of new technologies, under its Framework Programmes, including the current Horizon Europe.

Let me finish with short remarks on two important developments: as part of its border externalisation efforts the EU funds many biometric identification projects outside the EU. Remarkable examples are two projects to set up fingerprint databases of the whole population of Mali and Senegal by French company Civipol, a joint venture between the state and several French arms companies. These projects, financed with €25 and €28 million from the EUTF, seek to identify irregular migrants from both countries in Europe to deport them.

And second, the Covid-19-pandemic led to a shift in the focus of the biometrics market, mainly from fingerprinting to contactless systems as face recognition technologies. Many of the companies winning contracts for surveilling, monitoring and tracking migrants have also pitched their same technologies for health and policing related to Covid-19. In this sense borders are also an ideal testing ground for new technologies. According to human rights lawyer Petra Molnar and Diego Naranjo (European Digital Rights), refugees and migrants “often become guinea pigs on which to test new surveillance tools before bringing them to the wider population”. In turn, refugees are then bound to be primary targets for their expanded use.

In short: the rise of new surveillance and data-collection technologies is an important part of Europe’s overall process of border militarisation and externalisation. A process driven by the lobby of the military and security industry, resulting in billions of profits. Meanwhile, the EU’s violent and racist border and migration policies violate human rights of people and the move and result in more deaths and inhumane unsafe futures for many. An untenable course, which is bound to implode some time in the future.

Steun Stop Wapenhandel