Why technology can’t solve the Irish border problem

Digital borders already exist. But frictionless borders depend on trust, not surveillance.

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It’s a paradox that as Britain’s influence in the world diminishes, the country guards its borders with greater zeal. There are no longer fortresses built to defend against invaders; but there are checkpoints designed to prevent the free movement of people while allowing the free movement of capital, and now, to uncouple the regulations that govern the UK from those of the European Union.

In Ireland, this last objective has become an intractable struggle. The winding border that crosses the island of Ireland is deliberately invisible. Removal of border checks was intrinsic to the peace process that culminated in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. Today, ambulances, prescriptions, schools and cancer treatments are shared across the border. An estimated 110 million crossings are made each year.

Were it hardened, the border would become a visible obstruction to daily life. Impracticalities would prevail and enmities likely reopen. But the proposed alternative to a hard border – a backstop that would see the UK remain in a single customs territory with the EU – has proven unpalatable to both the DUP and European Research Group of Tory Brexiteers. The ERG has proposed a catch-all solution that has drawn growing political support: technology.

The group’s slim 2018 report on the future of the Irish border points to “existing technology” as a solution to a hard border. Elsewhere, politicians and commentators have promised the Irish border will be both “ultra hi-tech” and “nothing new”; it could use blockchain or drones; it will be frictionless and invisible. In short, technology is an empty signifier upon which we can project our wildest fantasies.

As journalist Newton Emerson, whose article is cited in the ERG report, puts it: “Be you ‘leave’ or ‘remain’, optimist or pessimist, you can hang your whole philosophy on the techno-border in a way that feels suitably technocratic”.

The logic here is peak Silicon Valley: technology vacates policies of their political intent, offering practical solutions that we can converge on regardless of political differences.

It’s an approach that technology writer Evgeny Morozov first termed “solutionism”; the view that, given the right code, technology can erase any knotty political or social problem. Take the recent plans reported in the Sun, for instance. Framed like a subplot in Minority Report, the article details a “leaked blueprint” detailing a “secret high-tech plan” by Japanese company Fujtisu, which will use artificial intelligence to monitor border crossings. Sure, we may not be able to fix profound underlying issues – like the mess that Brexit has produced or the Conservative party’s ignorance of Irish history – but we’ve got a cornucopia of hacks that will make everyday life more frictionless and efficient.

Yet this politics-free vision of the Irish border amounts to magical thinking. It’s not because the necessary technologies don’t exist; many already do. It’s that the proposed solutions, whether visible or not, would effectively monitor everyone and everything that passed across the Irish border, making it one of the most closely observed and therefore political crossings in the world. As the Irish journalist Naomi O’Leary put it, the Fujitsu plan would amount to “mass surveillance of Irish citizens by the UK”.

“Digital solutions to the Irish border have been proposed for a number of years, but few people are thinking about the ethical implications of expanding surveillance” says Professor Luciano Floridi, director of the Digital Ethics Lab at the University of Oxford’s Internet Institute.

One surveillance tool that has been proposed is automatic number plate recognition cameras, which capture images of vehicle registration plates on a server that digitally searches against a database of plates that are of police interest. By correlating this data with vehicle registration information, police can identify owners and reveal personal information – as happened in 2006, when the New York Police Department used license plate readers to profile Muslim worshippers. While Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley said there will be no new cameras on the Irish border, former Brexit secretary David Davis has proposed using license plate cameras on “strategic roads back from the border”.

Other technologies cited in the Fujitsu report included radio frequency identification, where data tags on particular objects, from potatoes to humans, can be tracked through radio waves; and the mining of social media data. So, sure, perhaps we could build a digital border. In fact, such technologies are already all around us, in the constant monitoring and harvesting of personal information by technology companies and governments that dictate where humans are free to move. Border agencies in Australia are able to request access to people's’ social media accounts. The United States in 2017 announced it would go a step further, storing social media data in applicants’ immigration files.

But frictionless borders work on the basis of trust, not mass surveillance. As Floridi tells it, “Technology can be used effectively to monitor an uncontentious border, like [those] between Brussels and Italy. But the more problematic the border, the less digital technology is the solution.”

The ease with which people can cross the Irish border has been achieved not through technology, but through the decision to trust one’s neighbours: something that Britain, with all its paranoia and waning political influence, seems less capable of doing than ever.

Hettie O'Brien is a New Statesman online editor.