Guest post by Joerg Nowak. Joerg is a Marie Curie Fellow at the University of Nottingham, UK. He works on labour conflicts in Brazil and India, infrastructure and logistics and on post-imperial industrial policies.

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Much has been written in the past years about the dystopic vision of EU borders increasingly equipped with drone surveillance (see here, here, here and here). Yet, when the first joint drone surveillance operation of Frontex, the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA) and Portuguese authorities was launched on 25 September 2018, there was a lack of response both from the media and concerned activists or researchers. Yet, the EMSA offered details about the operation on its website, and Frontex as well. In addition, Frontex mentioned in its press statement parallel operations undertaken in Italy and Greece in the same period.

These operations were a crucial step for the setup of the joint European information system for border surveillance, EUROSUR. The drone surveillance program in the context of Frontex operations is a major step in the operational setup of the EUROSUR program that aims to integrate databases and national coordination centres of 24 European countries. EUROSUR was officially introduced with a policy paper in 2008, and the system itself was launched on 1 December 2013 as a mechanism of information exchange among EU member states. But it is not yet fully operational, and drone surveillance is commonly seen as a central component for full operationability. Thus, the cooperation between the EMSA, Frontex and the Portuguese state in the recent operation is a crucial milestone to achieve the aim of EUROSUR to create a unified European border surveillance system.

This is why the operation launched in Portugal in September 2018 is of higher significance to the ones in Italy and Greece since it includes not only national authorities but also the EMSA, located in Lisbon, as a new key actor for border surveillance. EMSA was founded in 2002 as a response to various shipping disasters that lead to environmental pollution and originally focuses on monitoring the movement of ships, with a focus on the safety of shipping operations, environmental safety at sea and the trading of illegal goods via maritime transport.

In 2016 the EMSA was allocated 76 million Euros in a bid for the production of drones for the surveillance of the Mediterranenan in the context of Frontex missions. EMSA`s bid foresaw that  drones would be hired by EMSA itself. EMSA would run the operation of drones  and share real-time data with Frontex. The largest part of this bid, 66 million Euros, went to the Portuguese company Tekever, while smaller portions went to the Italian defence company Leonardo and to the Portuguese air force that will operate drones produced by the Portuguese company UA Vision. At the same time, the successful bid of Tekever and the integration of Portuguese authorities in surveillance operations catapults Portugal onto the map of the defence and surveillance industry that profits immensely from the recent technological craze around border surveillance (see here, here and here).

Lisbon-based Tekever set up a factory for the production of drones in the Portuguese mainland in Ponte de Sor, an emerging new hub for the aerospace industry. Together with French Collecte Localisation Service, which specialises in maritime surveillance, Tekever founded the consortium REACT in order to produce those specific drones. Under the Portuguese operation, ground control, i.e. the technical coordination of the flight of the drones, was located in Portugal under the authority of the Portuguese air force, while the operation was coordinated remotely by Frontex experts and Portuguese authorities in the Frontex Situational Centre in Poland where data were shared in real-time with EMSA. This first operation is a crucial step, testing the technical and administrative cooperation between EMSA and Frontex, and the functionality of the drones that were specifically produced for this purpose. These drones are lighter than the ones used in Greece and Italy, and they are equipped with special cameras and radars that can detect ship movements and receive emergency calls from the sea. This allows to run data collected by the drones through an algorithm that is programmed to distinguish so-called ´migrant vessels´ from other ships and boats.

The Portuguese government has set up a number of initiatives to foster this industry. For example, a national strategy called Space 2030 (Estratégia Portugal Espaço 2030was launched in 2018, and the newly founded Portuguese Space Agency (Agência Espacial Portuguesa) will begin to work in the first months of 2019. The fact that border surveillance is one of the larger European programs boosting the defence and surveillance industry financially has not generated any controversy in Portugal; neither the fact that a center-left government, supported by two radical left parties is propping up surveillance, aerospace and defence industries. The colonial continuities of this industrial strategy are all too visible since narratives like ‘from the discovery of the sea to the technology of space’ are used not only by industry actors, but also, for example, by the Portuguese Chamber of Commerce in the UK on its website. In this way, social and political domination of non-European territories and the control of the movement of racialized bodies are reduced to the fact of technological capability – in the colonial period the navigation of the seas with optical instruments, astronomic knowledge and ships, and today the electronic monitoring of movements on the sea with drones and integrated computer systems. The Portuguese aerospace industry is therefore presented as a cultural heritage that continues earlier technological achievements that became instruments to set up a global empire.

The lack of any mention about the start of the drone surveillance programme does not only demonstrate that border surveillance goes largely unquestioned in Europe, but also that the sums spent for surveillance and defence by EU agencies create incentives to engage more in the defence and surveillance industry. This goes all the more for countries that have been hit hard by austerity and deindustrialisation, such as Portugal. The recent increase of 9.3 billion Euros for the period 2021 to 2027 for border surveillance funding in the EU with the creation of the Integrated Border Management Fund focused on border protection, is a telling example of the focus of current EU industrial policies. For the same period, the European Commission has earmarked 2.2 billion Euro for Frontex in order to acquire, operate and maintain surveillance assets like drones, cameras, fences, and the like. In this situation, the political consensus among EU governments to restrict migration reinforces the economic interests of the defence industry and vice versa, and the interest of national governments to attract high-tech investment adds to this. Those lock-in effects could probably only be dismantled through a public debate about the selective nature of the entrepreneurial state whose funding has decisive influence on which industries prosper.

While the Portuguese government does not currently have a single helicopter operating in order to control and fight forest fires that have caused more than 100 deaths in the past two years, much EU and national public funding goes into technology aimed at the control of racialized bodies and the observation of earth from space. At the same time, there is considerable concern among experts that surveillance technology used for military means and border security will be rolled out over the entire population in the future for general policing purposes. For this reason, it remains important to keep an eye on which technologies are receiving large public funds and what are its possible uses.

Note: The Portuguese Chamber of Commerce in the UK writes on its website: 'Back in the XVI century, Portugal played an important role in the navigation technologies field giving the world the astrolabe. Five centuries later, the country delivers another extraordinary and useful navigating tool. A Portuguese company created the world’s first GPS navigation system with aerial photographs.' The website was accessed in December 2018, and a relaunch of the site in February 2019 did not contain this text anymore.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Nowak, J. (2019) Drone Surveillance Operations in the Mediterranean: The Central Role of the Portuguese Economy and State in EU Border Control. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2019/02/drone (Accessed [date]