On borders and digital agency

An image from ‘‘Blue Sky Days’’, a photography work of Tomas van Houtryve showing an aerial view of  students in a schoolyard in El Dorado County, California.
An image from ‘‘Blue Sky Days’’ of students in a schoolyard in El Dorado County, California. Photo credit: Tomas van Houtryve

Been researching on borders, immigration, and digital agency since last week and felt compelled to share some resources I came across in today’s post:

The very insightful book Violent Borders, of which I tore through in two days. The book posits the idea that borders are inherently violent constructs, and that they are “a governmental technology that is used to create, discipline and contain an orderly population inside a bounded territory.” Borders, like technology, are not innocent, and subject to some systemic harms that seek to strengthen the status quo that will benefit some privileged few.

“While asylum seekers are required to provide significant amounts of personal information on their journey to safety, they are rarely fully informed of their data rights by UN agencies or local border control and law enforcement staff tasked with obtaining and processing their personal information. This paper analyses how the vast amount of data collected from refugees is gathered, stored and shared today, and considers the additional risks this collection process poses.” Data protection and digital agency for refugees.

“One key struggle is obtaining meaningful consent. Often, biometric data is collected as soon as migrants and refugees arrive in a new country, at a moment when they are vulnerable and overwhelmed. Language barriers exacerbate the issue, making it difficult to provide adequate context around rights to privacy. Identity data is collected inconsistently by different organizations, all of whose data protection and privacy practices vary widely.” Investigating digital identity in the migration and refugee context in Italy.

“Data collectors and data brokers hold power. This is why surveillance technologies can be so alluring. International organisations that deploy large-scale identity collection systems can become the largest data brokers in a crisis region. The responsibility these organisations have to those they serve goes beyond data protection and privacy. It’s about upholding the human dignity of those who have been stripped of the ability to provide food for themselves and their families. Forcing them to submit biometrics further erodes their senses of agency.” Stop surveillance humanitarianism.

“The walls of the future go beyond one administration’s policies, though. They are growing up all around us, being built by global technology companies that allow for constant surveillance, data harvesting and the alarming collection of biometric information. In 2017, the United States announced it would be storing the social media profiles of immigrants in their permanent file, ostensibly to prevent Twitter-happy terrorists from slipping in. For years, Customs and Border Protection agents have asked travelers about their social media, too.” The real wall is no longer just at the (physical) border.

Then, from the same article, think about this: “If you zoom out enough in Google Earth, you’ll see the lines between nations begin to disappear. Eventually, you’ll be left staring at a unified blue planet. You might even experience a hint of what astronauts have called the “overview effect”: the sense that we are all on “Spaceship Earth,” together. “From space I saw Earth — indescribably beautiful with the scars of national boundaries gone,” recalled Muhammed Faris, a Syrian astronaut, after his 1987 mission to space. In 2012, Mr. Faris fled war-torn Syria for Turkey.”

“We didn’t cross the border. The border crossed us. We have always been here.” In 2014, author Teju Cole published an essay on the topic of immigration, entirely on Twitter. Here’s the full post in a proper essay form.

“A view from the great height is irresistible. It is twinned with the ancient dream of flight. For millennia, we have imaginatively soared above our material circumstances and dramatised this desire in tales from Icarus to Superman. Things look different from way up there. What was invisible before becomes visible: how one part of the landscape relates to another, how nature and infrastructure unfold. But with the acquisition of this panoptic view comes the loss of mich that could be seen at close range. The face of the beloved is but one invisible detail among many.” Teju Cole on drones and geographies of aerial violence.

“A refugee’s academic training and intellectual interests travel with them wherever they go and follow their flight. If refugees are given the necessary resources, networks, and opportunities, they can reconnect with their true identities.” On refugees, expertise, and employment.

More books that contextualise migration crises rooted in the violence of capitalism, legacies of colonialism, and racist state narratives from my favourite radical publisher Verso.

Listen also to musicians, Syrian Yousef Kekhia’s Hal Ard Lamin (Whose Earth Is This?) and Egyptian and Palestinian Moseqar x Haya Zaatry’s Borders and Promises.

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