Surveillance with drones at sea poses new privacy concerns

Surveillance with drones at sea poses new privacy concerns

In its strategy to 2024, the European Maritime Safety Agency (Emsa), says that thanks "to its investments over the years in hardware, software and knowledge, today Emsa has the ability to merge different sources of data and services and deliver a representation of the rich and integrated maritime situation ". The result is the result on the one hand of images from space, starting with the European satellite services of Copernicus, and on the other of the last piece of the project, the drones and the data they carry, which, writes Emsa, now provide "a level of offshore surveillance at a much more complete level. ”

All information is shared by Emsa with the authorities involved. First of all Frontex, the European agency responsible for controlling the borders. The latter is acquiring an increasingly important power in the architecture of the Union, which gives border surveillance an ever greater importance. Suffice it to say that the Commission in the 2022 budget assigned the highest figure, 769.7 million, to Frontex (a part was then frozen by the European Parliament) and 319.6 million, 12.9% of the total, to Eu- Lisa, which provides IT services to manage migration flows and borders. Over time, the two agencies have begun to work more and more closely.

The investigation

Building the “Fortress Europe” Cash flow The boom of databases Biometric data The European states want to put all the faces of those who have a driving license into a maxi-facial recognition system EU Council of Prüm II, which regulates the exchange of information between the Union police. The French presidency also pushes for mass research on DNA data Building the "Fortress Europe" If Frontex employs men and means, Eu-Lisa provides the digital infrastructure to monitor the borders of what increasingly resembles a "Fortress Europe" ". The same fortress that 12 countries of the Union recently proposed to defend by raising walls at the borders and that for the seven-year 2021-27 has budgeted 22.7 billion for the management of external borders. Any help, any source of information is well regarded. So too Emsa, who presents herself as "the eyes of the European Union on the sea", can lend a hand to the cause. So much so that, when the agency began experimenting with drones to increase the surveillance of the seas, in 2018, Frontex became interested in the matter, as emerges from the 320 pages on its business that Emsa handed over to (although not meeting all requests, failing to respond within the time limits set by community rules and obscuring significant parts of the documents).

A Chris Jones, executive director of the British non-governmental organization Statewatch, explains that “Emsa is supporting the construction of “Fortezza Europa” purely through the provision of surveillance services. In recent years, he has contracted several companies with the task of operating drones on his behalf. In part these are used for monitoring maritime pollution and to facilitate sea rescue. However, surveillance records are also provided to Frontex, whose border control work often puts people's lives at risk, for example, by informing the so-called Libyan Coast Guard on the location of boats in distress ".

" There is no doubt that drones can be of some use in spotting people in distress - says Jones -. However, in the Mediterranean their use increased as European governments closed public relief programs and prevented civilian missions from operating ”. “A drone - he concludes - will never be able to rescue desperate people from a sinking ship or provide them with medical assistance: for that we need rescue boats.”

Frontex patrols the Aegean Dan Kitwood / Getty Images Flow of money Surveillance, however, is attracting more and more investments. In 2019 Frontex finalized a 1.5 million euro contract for satellite services useful for "tracking boats in the Mediterranean or people traveling with satellite phones", comments the NGO Privacy International. The contract was awarded to the American Hawkeye 360, on whose board of directors sit managers of the most important military companies in the world and which avails itself of the advice of former stars and stripes officers. Instead of using rescue boats, Frontex is increasing the number of eyes on the sea and data collected with "planes, drones and satellites" are shared with authorities, including Libyan ones, according to a 2016-2018 report seen by association.

In providing the data, the European agency argued that "no personal data is processed in the context of the provision of unmanned aerial vehicle services", however it is the same Emsa that in the contracts it signs with the companies to which it entrusts the contracts or with the authorities involved to mention the fact that all data, through its data center, will be shared in real time with the Frontex headquarters in Warsaw and it will then be the Polish agency to provide them to other interested bodies or give the consent to Emsa to make them available to third parties.

History of the professor who opposes the alliance between Frontex and the Polytechnic of Turin Michele Lancio has put the col collaboration between the European border agency and the university, which will have to produce maps. The reason for the choice The boom of databases It is this creation of ever richer databases shared between various police authorities that has raised the antennas of privacy guarantors and organizations that defend digital rights. Because the creation at European level of common databases, with biometric information extracted from national or international archives and conveyed in a single reservoir can create some problems. European rules and agencies such as Frontex or Europol are pushing in this direction, asking for access to this database network in order to correlate data, but the result is not obvious.

“Creating databases is normal and the fact that we want to bring order at European level is welcome - observes to Wojciech Wiewiórowski, European guarantor of personal data (Edps) - but we know that making individual databases interoperable is a great challenge, because we need to clarify the origin of information, the reason for their collection, their relevance ". The guarantor moved precisely against Europol, requiring the office to delete data not related to crimes or criminals, illegally detained according to the same regulations as the police office. The risk, without clarity on the origin of the information, is that "artificial intelligence software or human intelligence make unexpected connections, reaching incorrect conclusions," observes Wiewiórowski. And he continues: “These databases were created with different purposes, so care must be taken in relating information. If I interrogate a database based on criminal records in a context other than that of crime, I apply the wrong lens to that situation. We must be aware of the origins of the data ".

For this reason the guarantor's office is requesting more attention in the archiving phase: define the origin of the data, the reasons for the collection, the circumstances, establish a maximum time of data retention. "Interoperability is something natural - concludes Wiewiórowski -, we cannot go against it but we can intervene, providing solutions of this kind in the legislative process". In short, by regulating the communication between databases. Edps must be involved in the development of technical standards for these applications. A process that, however, is inserted on machines that are often already running, with already shared data and communicating databases. “We also need to clarify the functions of the different agencies and”, observes Wiewiórowski. Frontex does one job, for example, Emsa another, and they are not responsible for what is in the other's database, even if they have access to it. And if the Edps can move on the European offices, at the national level it is up to the local guarantors to express themselves on the decisions of the national authorities, which in turn can be connected in what increasingly resembles an infinite web.

Greece enlists tech surveillance systems for migrant camps in the Aegean islands Biometric data "Every form of interoperability creates a challenge - concludes the European supervisor - because the purpose for which a database was created is lost, categorizations are lost , the reasons why a person is inside ”. What happens in Italy in the identification phase of migrants is striking, as revealed by a research by the Hermes Center for transparency and digital human rights: "The biometric data collected at the time of disembarkation or arrival on the national territory are included in a database (Afis) that contains potential suspects and is used to find matches of faces and identities through the facial recognition system used by the Italian police, Sari. This criminalization takes place without the possibility that civil society can know exactly the number of photo-reported people for each category provided for by the law, and therefore in an uncontrollable and opaque way ”. “These fusion centers, which collect information flows from different authorities, create a problem - observes Edin Omanovic of Privacy International -. And the European Union is creating some on the American model ".

And reading Emsa's 2021-23 plan, the road seems to be marked:" In the maritime surveillance sector, on the basis of developments related to irregular immigration, available budget and perceived efficiency, Frontex will formulate the services it expects from the agency ”. In short, marriage is destined to last a long time.

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