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Are Algorithms the New Jailers?

  • Jun 13 2023
  • ​​Petra Molnar
    is a lawyer and anthropologist specializing in technology, migration, and human rights. She is the Associate Director of the Refugee Law Lab at York University and a Fellow at the Berkman Klein Centre for Internet and Society at Harvard University. Petra is currently writing her first book, Artificial Borders (The New Press, 2024).

Surveillance, automated decision-making, and various other experimental projects are increasingly controlling migration across the world. 

Borders kill. Already, violent global border policies are sharpened through the use of digital technologies developed for the purposes of border control and migration management. Borders also serve as testing grounds for new technologies, places where regulation is deliberately limited, and where an “anything goes” frontier attitude informs the development and deployment of surveillance at the expense of people’s lives. When trying to understand the impacts of various migration management and border technologies, such as AI lie detectors, surveillance drones, and various automated decision-making tools, it is important to consider the broader ecosystem in which these technologies develop. This landscape is increasingly replete with the criminalization of migration, anti-migrant sentiments, and practices such as pushbacks, which have lead to thousands of deaths at borders. 

The future is not just more technology, it is more death. Indeed, surveillance and smart borders have been proven to not deter people from making dangerous crossings—instead, people have been forced to change their routes towards less inhabited terrain, leading to loss of life both in the US/Mexico desert as well as along the maritime borders of the EU. The region of Evros separating Greece and Turkey is one such site of violence and death.


fig. 1


This  region is full of surveillance technologies like Frontex aerostat machines, drones, sound cannons, and an expanded physical wall, all of which push people into more dangerous terrain during their journeys. The Aegean islands are also a site of experimentation: in this case, of high tech, prison-like refugee camps, full of algorithmic motion detection software, drones, and other surveillance technologies. The island of Kos, which houses one of these new camps, is also one of the sites of the EU-funded pilot project ROBORDER, which explicitly “aims to create a fully functional autonomous border surveillance system with unmanned mobile robots including aerial, water surface, underwater and ground vehicles.” 

From a legal perspective, border technologies have profound impacts on people’s human rights and civil liberties, from privacy to discrimination to even life, liberty, and personal security. These technological experiments to augment or replace human immigration officers have drastic results: in the UK, 7,000 students were wrongfully deported because a faulty algorithm accused them of cheating on a language acquisition text. In the US, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE) has worked with Palantir Technologies and other private companies to track and separate families and enforce the deportations and detentions of people escaping violence in Central and Latin America. As we have already seen in the EU, tens of thousands of people have died in the Mediterranean and Aegean seas at Europe’s land borders because of weaponized surveillance technologies.

The creation of legal black holes in migration management technologies is underpinned by systemic racism and historical discrimination which allow for the creation of opaque zones of technological experimentation that would not be allowed in other spaces. Mobile populations are the abject and feared Others, justifying unregulated technological experimentation under the guise of efficiency and security. The very rhetoric of migration “management” implies that refugees and migrants must be controlled, as they are a threat to national sovereignty, particularly in times when more and more states are turning inward and reifying their sovereign power. This performance is particularly cogent when the law is suspended, such as in Australia’s extraterritorial (and extra-legal) immigration detention policies, or, as in the case of technological development, where there simply is no law (or very little law). 

In addition, the private sector determines what we innovate on and why, often in problematic public-private partnerships that states are increasingly keen to make in today’s global AI arms race. Private companies linked to human rights abuses, like Palantir Technologies, Airbus, Thalys, and many others, have now become the preferred vendor for various governments. After all, as the growing and lucrative border industrial complex shows, there is big money to be made by Big Tech at the expense of the rights and lives of people relegated to the margins. The hubris of Big Tech and the allure of quick fixes and technological “solutions” do not address the systemic reasons why profound inequities and power differentials continue to exist in our world.

Technology replicates power structures in society, and it is never neutral. It is a political exercise that highlights how the hubris of innovation does not address the systemic and historical reasons why people are marginalized, and why they are forced to migrate in the first place. Unfortunately, the viewpoints of those most affected are routinely excluded from the discussion.


This text by Petra Molnar is the edited transcription of her lecture which took place on March 24, in the framework of the conference “SMART PRISONS,” organized by Disruption Network Lab and curated by Tatiana Bazzichelli. For more, see

Disruption Network Lab is an ongoing platform of events and research focused on the intersection of politics, technology, and society. We are a Berlin-based nonprofit organization (Disruption Network Lab e. V.) that, since 2014, has organized participatory, interdisciplinary, and international events at the intersection of human rights and technology with the objective of strengthening freedom of speech and exposing the misconduct and wrongdoing of the powerful. We develop work that advocates for the globally marginalized.



    Cover: Petra Molnar, Official opening of high-tech refugee camp on the Greek island of Kos, December 2021, Courtesy: Petra Molnar.

    fig. 1: Petra Molnar, Graveyard of people who perished making the crossing from Turkey into Greece, 2021, Courtesy: Petra Molnar.



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