Big Data at the border

Enhanced security measures have turned airports into dense data ecosystems. Passenger purchase and travel details are shared, often across borders, among authorities and operators; automated border gates collect and authenticate personal data and biometrics, matching travellers with the information registered in their travel documents (opening the microprocessor chip embedded in the document); and databases with different levels of security protocols determine who is allowed to fly and register who is going where and when. The ongoing implementation of technology and digital data to control people’s’ movement is not just a technical matter, but it brings about significant transformations to the features, politics and experience of border crossing.

Key Concepts

Present-day procedures constitute a hybrid form of human and algorithmic decision-making, as is required by law. However, it is the promise of a border-crossing big data system that underpins the attempts to automate and enhance border control through the use of data-intensive technologies. National laws establish the different levels of screening that citizens and foreigners undergo in a variety of situations. Whilst these requirements used to be executed by means of human decisions, they are increasingly being mediated by technological solutions. This report is guided by the need to map the present procedures, to obtain a comprehensive picture of the potential uses and risks of the gathered data, and to understand how big data could contribute to algorithmic decision-making at the border.


Relationships between borders, data, citizenship and rights

This report is a contribution to the political debate and policy planning. On the one hand, it focuses on the changing practice and nature of borders due to the implementation of digital technologies, biometrics and automation, and reflects on the impact of these new borders’ morphologies on the mobility of individuals and their rights. It discusses the legal framework of the EU Smart Borders Initiative and provides a description of the role borders play in the configuration of our societies, and how technology and digital data are creating new ways to regulate and control circulation flows. It draws on law, anthropology, sociology and surveillance studies to lay out the relationships between borders, data, citizenship and fundamental rights and values.

Data processing extends identity authentication

It maps the data flows at border crossing points, showing how data processing extends identity authentication from the physical space of the border (and specifically airports) to the locations where pre- and post-screening procedures happen (from the embassy to the travel agent, the frequent-flyer program or the immigration authorities).

Border automatization experiences from different perspectives

Finally, this report is also devoted to presenting the qualitative empirical data related to how border guards and passengers experience the changing nature of borders due to the automatization of borders and the proliferation of identification and database-matching technologies. Empirical data on the everyday dynamics of human interaction with algorithmic decision-making processes and big data practices at border crossing points are described through the words of border guards and the observation of traveller flows and interactions at several EU BCPs (Border Crosser Points). The empirical findings and theoretical insights that we present in this report are surely relevant beyond the European context, as these systems are being implemented globally.