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Digital Confinement. The reconfigurations of Borders and Detention Through New Technologies

Carlsberg Foundation Reintegration Fellowships

What

The use of new technologies for immigration control is expanding rapidly, as tech giants are investing in immigration enforcement, a market that was, until recently, dominated by technologies developed by government agencies themselves or by contractors from the prison or military industrial complex. The US Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is currently installing facial recognition software on the cell-phones of asylum seekers as an alternative to immigration detention and has started collaborations with tech companies for the extractions of larger, complex datasets involving migrants and citizens who assist them within US borders.

Why

The project conceptualizes 'Digital Confinement' and the ways in which detention and internal border control are reconfigured through new technologies. While drawing on and developing existing theories on the spatial and temporal dimensions of confinement, it works with the hypothesis that the deployment of tech, such as facial recognition as an alternative to detention implies a transformation of detainability and deportability, that is, the experienced risk of being detained and deported. Beyond its theoretical significance for confinement and migration research, the project will contribute to the wider scholarly debates on public/private partnerships, on surveillance capitalism and the protection of personal data, also within the context of scientific research itself.

How

In order to understand and convey the spatial and temporal experiences of migrants submitted to 'Digital Confinement', I will carry out ethnographic fieldwork and visual research, including documentary filmmaking. In parallel, through interviews with stakeholders and documentary research, I will map the larger complex network of private and public actors who advocate for or against the use of tech for internal border control, with a focus on the political and economic logics at play. Finally, I will foster research collaborations with civil society stakeholders and Danish and international colleagues on the urgent questions of methods and ethics in research that involves tech and vulnerable populations.

SSR

This project aims to contribute to the debates on policy-making, public expenditure, and the extractive practices of tech companies, while taking into account the consequences of the economy and business of migration control for targeted individuals, as well as the wider implications for all citizens concerned by tech that identify and monitor individuals. Understanding the lived, embodied experiences of surveillance and confinement, when border control is ensured through facial recognition software or other tech, is of relevance to citizens at large. Indeed, confinement and migration control are often laboratories for what is to come for the general population. While most identification technologies were developed and managed by civil servants until recently, tech companies today compile unprecedented amounts of data and develop increasingly sophisticated software to process it, with little or no consent or oversight. The development of online research and data collection in 2020 has raised pressing questions around digital methods and ethics, and the project aims to foster research collaborations with civil society stakeholders and researchers in order to generate urgent sets of ethical guidelines and appropriate research methods for scholars working specifically on issues of surveillance and control of vulnerable populations.