Just as computers have transformed life in innumerable ways, they have also had their
impact on the enlargement, defense and security of national borders. In this paper I would
like to explore the concept of the “invisible border” and survey the various technologies that
correspond to border security in Europe. I have organized this survey in two parts, exploring
the information-sharing technologies that the European Union has deployed in its airports,
and the front-line technologies used by Spain at Europe’s external borders. I will also
explore how these two areas of technology combine to form an integrated surveillance
system for the purpose of excluding unwanted third-country nationals.
Twenty years and a month ago, the border between two political continents, the
Berlin Wall, came down, ending the Cold War. The Berlin Wall was a visible border, built
to reinforce ideological and economic differences. When it fell, citizens around the world
celebrated the end of an oppressive regime. And yet since that momentous occasion borders
continue to exist everywhere, supported by countless nations and the sources of gigantic
budgets. What has changed about the border since 1989 is its visibility. No longer a
concrete wall, the border has become an amorphous entity, lurking in air, water, and space.
Technology is responsible for this transformation, making the border, most significantly, in
The colloquialism “strength in numbers” applies to the European Union in more ways
than one. As the EU has consolidated, its outlying borders have increased with each new
member. In 1985 five European countries (France, West Germany, Belgium, the which
resolved to abolish internal borders among them. In later developments of the agreement
many more countries joined in, allowing persons and goods to move freely within the
Schengen area. At present, there are twenty-seven EU-member states, twenty-five of which
participate in Schengen cooperation. Concomitant with the dissolution of internal borders,
however, is a compensatory strengthening of the external border, which under Article 96 of
the Schengen Convention intends to keep unwanted aliens out.
According to statistics, there are 1,792 designated EU external border-crossing points
with controls. This includes 665 air borders, 871 sea borders, and 246 land borders.i The
task of border enforcement is therefore a formidable one for the European Union. Since
September 11, 2001, the EU has invested billions of euros into the deployment of border
control information technology programs.ii Additionally, in 2005 the EU established an
agency called FRONTEX, whose aim is “to coordinate the operational cooperation between
Member States in the field of border security”.iii FRONTEX is quite simply the brawn at the
border. Given Europe’s geographical position, 62% of FRONTEX’s budget goes to maritime
operations. FRONTEX oversees what it calls an “integrated border security model” and
enlists the participation of other member states (money and equipment) so that their southern
European neighbors are not alone in defending the external border.
In 2003, the Group of Personalities (GoP) convened to discuss strategies toward
securitizing Europe. The GoP consisted of European parliamentarians and leaders from the
defense and information technology industries. In the introduction to their report the authors
state that “new technology trends offer new opportunities. Civil, security and defence
applications increasingly draw on the same technological base – creating new synergies
between different research sectors” (7).iv A later incarnation of this group, the European
Security Research Advisory Board (ESRAB) lay out similar, if not more carefully
constructed objectives. (See Appendix 1) The keyword here is synergy, which allows the
potential for various industries to interact and share knowledge because of a shared
This year the EU has budgeted 1.4 billion euros over a period of seven years toward
the research and development of technologies focused on security.v Research is concentrated
on the four following areas: improving citizen security, strengthening infrastructure security,
border monitoring and crisis management. The fruits of this research must benefit all
member states, and to do so among all twenty-seven requires significant strides in
information sharing, system interoperability, and enhanced data and communication security.
And yet while huge efforts go into developing infallible information systems for tracking
individuals, the EU is equally reliant on brawn at the border, as evidenced by the creation of
FRONTEX. Surveillance is a big, complicated, and expensive business. In this environment
civil information technology companies collaborate with militaries, arms manufacturers
influence social policy-making, and tools used to monitor climate change give a return on
investment by tracking migratory flows of persons. All for the purpose of keeping the
1. The Schengen Information System
Among the tools that the EU uses to monitor its external borders is the Schengen
Information System (SIS). Most commonly, the use of the SIS is in airports and by agencies
issuing visas. The SIS is a centralized European Union-wide database that became
operational in March 1995.vi Each participating country has its own national SIS database,
which links up to the centralized SIS.vii These databases contain alphanumeric data on the
• persons wanted for arrest and extradition
• persons banned from entering the Schengen area
• missing and dangerous persons
• people wanted to appear in court
• people to be placed under surveillance
• lost and stolen objects.viii
The user interface of the SIS national databases is called SIRENE, which stands for
Supplementary Information Request at the National Entry. The technical support function of
SIS is in Strasbourg, France. Users issue alerts on their national SIS on individuals deemed a
threat to public safety. This then enters the centralized SIS, making the data available to all
other Schengen states. Following 9/11, the European Council asked member states to
increase data entry into the SIS. According to Statewatch statistics, Italy and Germany have
been the highest issuers of alerts to refuse entry to third-country aliens.ix Categories of data
entered into the system by users (immigration officials, police officers, embassies and
consulates) within each national SIS database include:
• surname and forenames, any aliases possibly entered separately
• any specific objective physical characteristics not subject to change
• first letter of second forename
• date and place of birth
• whether the persons concerned are armed
• whether the persons concerned are violent
• reason for the alert
• action to be taken.
The original SIS system could accommodate up to eighteen countries. With the
enlargement of the EU, however, the SIS has had to expand its capabilities. In anticipation of
this growth, the EU began considering a second-generation database system, or SIS2.
Projected for 2011, SIS2 will incorporate digital images, biometric data such as fingerprints
and facial images, and will answer police requests within five seconds.
According to Bantekas and Nash (2003), the majority of entries on the SIS have to do
with immigration rather than criminal concerns: “It has been suggested that the SIS is not
primarily a tool for tackling serious crime, but is a basis for preventing illegal immigration
and for tracing lost or stolen property. The successful ‘hit’ rate of the system is generally
low and it is questionable whether the information held on the SIS is accurate” (279).x
Indeed, questions have been raised as to the accuracy of data contained in the database,
although the Schengen Convention states that persons with entries in the system have the
right to access their personal data.
What the SIS is (or isn’t) doesn’t deserve much exploration. After all, it is basically a
large database containing information mostly about third-country nationals traveling to the
EU. The SIS2 will undoubtedly be a bigger, faster system with more capabilities. What the
SIS represents, however, and what it does, is worth exploring. Surveillance is mere people-
watching so long as the the subject remains anonymous. Combine people-watching with a
powerful information system supported by interoperable databases and you have the potential
for uninterrupted, absolute surveillance.
2. Border Defense: SIVE and Sea Horse.
While the SIS monitors the flow of persons through airports, the EU takes a more
militaristic approach to the protection of its southern maritime borders. Paradoxically, most
illegal immigrants in the EU are individuals who entered legally but overstayed their visas.
Nevertheless, a tremendous amount of financial and intellectual resources seek to slow, if not
eradicate, the northward migration of North Africans and sub-Saharans. As opposed to a
land border, which a state can enforce with a line, a fence, or a wall, a sea border poses
challenges to border enforcement. According to the United Nations Convention on the Law
of the Sea (UNCLOS), a coastal state may claim sovereignty over waters extending twelve
nautical miles from the shoreline.xi To the naked eye, however, this kind of border is
impossible to observe. Thus the EU relies more and more on advanced systems of radar and
satellite surveillance to monitor these borders. For the purposes of this paper I will focus on
Spain. (See Appendix 2-6)
Spain has implemented the S.I.V.E. (Sistema integrado de vigilancia exterior)xii
system to hinder would-be immigrants to their shores. The S.I.V.E., a function of the
Spanish Guardia Civil,xiii consists of three main components: watchtowers provisioned with
fixed and mobile detection devices, including radars and thermal and infrared cameras;
control centers that operate the watchtower equipment remotely and coordinate command;
and interception units, such as boats, helicopters, and land vehicles, that dispatch when
called. (See Appendices 2-7)
The first S.I.V.E. station was built nearby Gibraltar in 2001. When the Partido
Popular (PP)xiv enacted the S.I.V.E., they appointed €150 million over a five year period to
the project. In retrospect, this was roughly the equivalent of €1,800 per migrant intercepted
(Carling 2007). Since then, forty-three more stations have been added to the armada,
covering a total of 1,000 kilometers of Spanish coastline. The purpose of the system is to
detect foreign vessels early and act aggressively against potential illegal immigration and
narcotrafficking. The S.I.V.E. is most prominent around the Strait of Gibraltar and in the
Canary Islands. Seen as the object of direct “threat” given their close proximity to southern
Morocco and Western Sahara, the Canary Islands’ S.I.V.E. stations possess radar technology
capable of detecting vessels up to 25 km offshore. This gives Guardia Civil officers three
hours to intercept the vessel. These same instruments were deployed in the war in
Afghanistan (Carling 2007).
While the S.I.V.E. has had an impact on curbing illegal immigration within its
jurisdiction, in reality migration patterns continue to flow, only diverted to other areas. For
instance, where the S.I.V.E. is not fully capable, such as in farther parts of the Canary Islands
or in the Alborán Sea, irregular migration continues to occur. The S.I.V.E. has not ended
illegal immigration; it has only made it more dangerous and costly for the migrant. Migrants
are forced to seek longer and riskier routes, which inevitably leads to higher numbers of
The information technology firm contracted to develop and manage the S.I.V.E. is
Indra Sistemas, a Madrid-based company whose purview includes transport and traffic,
energy and industry, security and defense, and telecommunications and media. In the first
half of 2008, defense and security amounted to 29% of Indra’s business.xvi . Indra seeks to
expand sales of its radars and equipment for satellite technology, border surveillance and
flight data processing.
European policy makers have concluded that migration control is impossible without
third-country cooperation. Within the context of the sea, where sovereignty is impossible to
determine without location-based technology, the interception of boats of migrants is tricky
business. Hence the development of the Sea Horse communication networks, another Indra
initiative. Sea Horse is a satellite-based system that allows participating neighbor countries
(Spain, Portugal, Mauritania, Senegal and Cape Verde) to exchange information and
coordinate efforts against illegal immigration and narcotrafficking.xvii FRONTEX
undoubtedly helps organize this collaborative framework. In 2006 the EU signed agreements
with the governments of Mauritania, Cape Verde and Senegal to extend Frontex’s operations
into their territorial waters. Therefore via international political treaties the EU has managed
to find way to impose its sovereignty (and technology) on third-countries in the effort to seal
Technologically speaking, Sea Horse integrates the use of UAVs, or unmanned aerial
vehicles, for capturing images and providing real-time data. In addition, the Sea Horse
enables information sharing among external information systems, such as S.I.V.E. and the
automatic identification system (AIS) to see visual pictures of threats in real time.xviii
And Indra continues to triumph: €25 million from the Portuguese government to set
up a command and control surveillance system of 560+ miles of coastline; a contract to
implement an integrated surveillance system along the Black Sea border of Romania; the
exclusive controller of satellites launched in Spain.
The Schengen Convention opened up Europe’s internal borders, allowing for the free
movement of persons throughout the Schengen area. The Berlin Wall came down and border
checkpoints disappeared, facilitating the transport of people and goods. At the same time,
the Schengen Convention delineates the importance of reinforcing the external borders of
Europe in order to keep unwanted aliens out. Therefore it is data that determines “advance-
to-go” or “go-back-three-spaces” to use a Monopoly® analogy. With so many countries
cooperating in this mission, the task of border enforcement requires sophisticated
technological tools to make invisible walls. The buzz words data-sharing and synergies
apply to border enforcement and surveillance as much as they do among other industries.
Without data, the current border paradigm in Europe would collapse, for there is no other
way of monitoring the entry of people, either in airports or by sea.
Hayes (2009) foresees this interoperability will lead to constant surveillance: “This
new generation of ‘e-borders’ is being linked into existing law enforcement databases and
government IT systems, providing a high-tech security blanket that will ultimately stretch
from Europe’s airports and land borders to illegal immigration ‘snatch squads’ and police on
the streets equipped with hand-held fingerprint scanners.”
While knowledge sharing and system interoperability are fundamentally good things,
they reveal a shadowy side within the realm of border protection. Satellite surveillance as a
means of monitoring environmental changes (the Land and Sea Monitoring for Environment
and Security LIMES project for example) can just as easily monitor the movement of people.
With the goal of data collection for data sharing, the border ends up watching you.
To end, I’d like to share Sergio Carrera’s assessment of this border paradigm: “The
European policy on border security appears to be primarily focused on the development of
non-tangible, technology-based and dispersed borders centered on the need to track and
‘manage’ the individual through the use of new technologies and Europe-wide databases.”xix
With new capabilities data collection and management, we as a global community are
obsessed with knowing all. Yet at what price? When are our political leaders going to
acknowledge that an ethical review of these “securitizing” practices is necessary, and that
more is not necessarily more?
Appendix 1. European Security Research Agenda Board (ESRAB) objectives.
From Meeting the challenge: the European Security Research Agenda: A report from the
European Security Research Advisory Board (2006)
Appendix 2. S.I.V.E.
“The Integrated System of Border Surveillance (S.I.V.E.) is a pioneering program in Europe
designed to fight against illegal immigration and drug smuggling networks in the Strait of
Gibraltar. Investment: 142.43 million euros”
Appendix 3. S.I.V.E. Control Centers in Málaga, Algeciras, and on the Cádiz coast of Spain.
“With a control center in Algeciras, three fixed coastal stations and seven mobile units the
project is capable of localizing any kind of suspicious vessel, identifying it and facilitating its
“Early detection. The station detects via the radar and cameras the presence of a human
body or motor, eliminating all that could give false signals, including waves.”
“Monitoring and Coordination. The system must proceed to interception. Estimation of the
probable trajectory given its actual position.”
“Reponse and Coordination. Dispatching of resources. The operator dispatches the units in
operation that are closest to the objective.”
December 13, 2009.
Koslowski, R. (2007) “Border Security Policies and Technologies in the EU.” Podcast on UCLA
International Institute web site. Accessed December 1, 2009. Available at:
What is Frontex? Accessed December 15, 2009. Available here: http://www.frontex.europa.eu/
Group of Personalities (2004) Research for a Secure Europe, available at:
The EU’s 7th Framework Programme for research (FP7). http://ec.europa.eu/research/research-
eu/60/article_6008_en.html. Accessed December 14, 2009
“SIS II takes ominous shape” http://www.statewatch.org/news/2002/apr/01sis.htm
Michael, K. & Michael, M. G. K. Michael and M. G. Michael. "Schengen Information System II:
The balance between civil liberties, security and justice" Australia and the New Technologies:
Evidence Based Policy in Public Administration (1 ed). Ed. Katina Michael and MG Michael.
Wollongong: University of Wollongong, 2008. 173-182.
Hayes, B. (2005) SIS II: fait accompli?Construction of EU’s Big Brother database underway.
‘Three-quarters of a million "illegal aliens" banned from Schengen area’,
Statewatch News Online, April 2005:
Bantekas, I. & Nash, S. (2003). International Criminal Law. London: Cavendish Publishing
Overview and full text of United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea of 10 December 1982
Integrated System of Border Surveillance (my translation)
The Guardia Civil, according to their website, is a military armed service that serves to protect the
rights and liberties of Spaniards. http://www.guardiacivil.org/quesomos/index.jsp
The PP is the center-right political party in Spain. It was in power under the leadership of Jose
Maria Aznar from 2000-2004.
noborder.org lists migrant deaths at 3,830 for the period of December 2002 to the present. This
number only includes documented deaths. See: http://www.noborder.org/dead.php
Whitington, T. (2008 September 01) Indra Is in Expansion Mode. Defense Technology
International 2(7), 48.
Buschschluter, V. (2009 January 25) Satellite Helps Fight Illegal Immigration. bbcnews.com.
Accessed December 02, 2009. Available at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/7818478.stm
Interior confía a Indra el despliegue de la nueva red Sea Horse Network. (2008 May 23) Retrieved
December 4, 2009 from Computing.es web site:
Carrera, S. (2007). The EU Border Management Strategy: FRONTEX and the Challenges of
Irregular Immigration. Centre for European Policy Studies.