Guest post by Tim Dekkers, a PhD student at the Institute for Criminal Law and Criminology of Leiden Law School. His research focuses on the use of information technology and risk assessment in Dutch immigration control. This post is the fifth installment of Border Criminologies’ themed series on Decision-making in the Dutch Borderlands organised by Maartje van der Woude.  

Technology can play a key role in improving and reinforcing external borders.’ This is a clear statement by the European Commission as to the EU’s view on the use of technology in border security. The development of various large-scale information systems shows that these aren’t just empty words. Over the last two decades systems like the Schengen Information System (I and II), the Visa Information System,  Smart Borders Package, and EUROSUR have been developed and put in operation. These systems collect information, in some form or another, relating to migration in Europe. The systems are used to facilitate, among other things, what is called intelligence-led policing (ILP).

In recent years a notable shift in policing has occurred. Whereas police organizations tended to be reactionary in nature, there was a realization that this approach wasn’t a very effective way of fighting crime. In an ideal situation crime would be prevented. With the move towards ILP police organizations hope to tackle crime proactively. Information is considered to be the key to proactive policing. By collecting and analyzing information on crime, police organizations aim to figure out where and when action is necessary in order to prevent crime from happening. Even though this method originated in civilian policing, it’s increasingly being used in border policing as well.

ILP in Dutch Border Areas 

The Royal Netherlands Marechaussee (RNM), tasked with border security and migration control in the Netherlands, is also moving towards ILP. Since 2006 the RNM has been increasingly using information and information technology in the execution of the MSM. In 2012 the first steps were made towards a fully intelligence-led organization in response to the Melki and Abdeli ruling of the EU Court of Justice. Through the use of both national and EU databases the RNM aims to improve immigration control in Dutch border areas. The information from these databases will highlight developments in cross-border movements and related demographics. Additionally, the RNM is using a smart camera system called @migo-boras, a high-tech system that collects information on cross-border traffic 24/7. This information can be used to determine when and where the MSM checks will get the most results. @migo-boras can also apply risk profiles to the passing traffic during the MSM checks. It does so by taking a picture of the front of every vehicle (its occupants not visible) that crosses the border and analyzing that picture to see if it fits the characteristics of vehicles that have previously been related to irregular immigration and cross-border crime. The idea behind the system is that the information will point out where, when, and who to check, making the MSM more objective, efficient, and effective by removing, or lessening, border officials’ discretionary decision-making.

In order to achieve this form of ILP, all of this information and technology needs to actually be used in practice. Without the actual use of technology, the decision-making process of law enforcement officers remains as it used to be, making ILP an empty shell of technology and information. Previous research on the use of information and technology in law enforcement shows that this isn’t just a theoretical issue. Police organizations are notorious for resisting change and a wide array of issues surrounding the implementation of ILP in law enforcement have been documented. To name a few: officers may not trust the information provided by intelligence departments and therefore will not use it; officers may not be trained well enough to use the information or technology; or officers may use information only to verify their own hunches and disregard anything to the contrary.

The use of information and technology in migration control in general has also received criticism. Social sorting, erosion of freedom, and breaches of privacy are seen as potential issues associated with the increased use of information technology and actuarial decision making.

ILP in Practice

Our fieldwork with the RNM allowed us to gain insight in how ILP was used in the context of the MSM. During the ride-alongs we were able to see how information and technology were used. Additionally, the focus groups gave more in-depth information on these subjects. One thing became clear early on: officers didn’t think highly of ILP and the @migo-boras system. Several themes could be observed in the criticism. First, officers didn’t consider the information they received to be very useful. RNM officers viewed the risk profiles used by the @migo-boras system to be very broad, as the profiles predominantly take the license plate of the vehicle into account, effectively making the selection process a matter of nationality. Officers didn’t see the added value of the system, since they were perfectly able to observe license plates themselves. In addition, the information that officers received from the intelligence department was usually very general, such as trends in the cross-border traffic, and therefore not perceived as very useful to their policing work. As one officer illustrates:

The whole system is filled with Rumanian and Bulgarian license plates and that is, how do you say, that is the info that you get. How does that help me? When I’m at the border, I can see for myself if a Rumanian car passes, or a Bulgarian car.

Officers expressed the wish for more specific information on concrete vehicles or individuals linked to irregular migration or cross-border crime.

Technical difficulties with the systems were also mentioned often. @migo-boras would regularly be offline during MSM checks, leaving the officers unable to use the system. Working with the information systems was perceived as a tedious task by some officers. Complex processes or outdated software could make inputting or retrieving information time consuming. Because of these issues officers didn’t like to use the information systems.

Lastly, communication was an issue as officers had little knowledge on how @migo-boras worked. For example, although the system is supposed to collect information 24/7, officers didn’t know what happened to all of the data collected. Direct questions to the intelligence department on these subjects were often left unanswered. Similarly, officers could receive assignments from the intelligence department. Officers stated that they hardly ever knew what the reason for that assignment was. When asked for these reason, officers would often not receive an answer. These issues led officers to believe there was no actual intelligence that shows the assignments were necessary. This caused officers to doubt the intelligence department.

Over the course of our fieldwork, the implementation of ILP continued to be an important focal point for the RNM, leading to several recent changes aimed at addressing some of the challenges mentioned above, especially the communication issues. The effects of these changes will be measured through a post-test in the Fall of 2016.

Lessons to be Learned

As David Lyon put it so eloquently: ‘just because a surveillance system has been installed does not mean it will have the effects desired by its installers, for both technical and human-social reasons.’ This case study shows exactly that. Even though the RNM aims to be intelligence-led, our fieldwork shows that this isn’t the case at the moment. Officers still prefer to use their own experience and knowledge instead of the information systems. Organizations become intelligence-led only if the people making the decisions are willing to work that way. One should therefore be aware of the so-called canopy of science where a process may look to be supported by information and technology, but in practice it’s still the individual officer who makes the decisions. Organizations that want to work intelligence-led should therefore be aware of the human factor involved in this way of working.  

Apart from the practical, technical, and organizational challenges that systems like @migo-boras pose, the system has also been criticized in the light of the Schengen Agreement. Besides the issue of permanent surveillance of the borders as put forward by the Meijers Committee (the standing committee of Dutch experts on international immigration, refugee and criminal law), systems like @migo-boras can also create selective borders. At present, the selection process of @migo-boras seems to be primarily aimed at nationality, sending out the message that certain nationalities are less welcome than others.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Dekkers, T. (2016) Border Technologies in Dutch Immigration Control. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2016/02/border (Accessed [date]).