Article by Ben Hayes for the Economist’s “European Voice” newspaper, published 2 December 2010.

The robot armies at our borders

The EU is entering a new, and disturbing, phase in its efforts to police its borders.

In a hi-tech upgrade to ‘Fortress Europe’, the EU is developing drone planes, satellite surveillance systems, unmanned ground and marine vehicles, even combat robots, to be deployed to ‘defend’ Europe from migrants.

The policy is the result of a convergence in the EU’s ‘industrial competitiveness’ strategy, which has identified the global ‘homeland security’ market as one in which Europe should prosper, and an EU approach to migration control that places the prevention of refugees and undocumented migrants from crossing borders above any other objective, principle or approach.

In this upgrade, the defence sector, the surveillance industry and quasi-autonomous EU bodies such as Frontex and the European Defence Agency are joining forces.

More than €50 million in EU funds from the security research component of the Commission’s seventh framework programme for research (FP7) has already been allocated to the adaption of military surveillance techniques to Europe’s borders – and the programme is still in its infancy. Defence giants such as BAE Systems, Finmeccanica, Thales, EADS, Dassault Aviation, Sagem and Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI) feature in numerous consortia. At least six EU-funded projects envisage the use of ‘drones’ (or unmanned aerial vehicles, UAVs) for border control; others promise an array of surveillance and detection technologies.

They have names such as Seabilla, Sectronic and Talos, and ‘24/7 blue and green border situation awareness’ is their objective. Talos – a €20 million partnership between PIAP (a Polish producer of combat robots), IAI (the state-owned manufacturer of Israeli drones) and others – is field-testing “a mobile, modular, scalable, autonomous and adaptive system for protecting European borders” that will “take measures to stop the illegal action almost autonomously with supervision of border guard officers” – combat robots (or ‘Robocops’ perhaps?) in plainer terms.

It would be comforting to dismiss this research as a meeting of science fiction and science fancy, but the US has already deployed an equivalent – Predator drones – along its border with Mexico, part of an $850m (€624m) investment that also includes a ‘virtual fence’.

The determination to create a similar virtual fence in Europe is very real. The European Council has endorsed the European Commission’s Eurosur proposals for a hi-tech European border surveillance system and Frontex is now investing in fixed surveillance and border-drone technology (expressions of interest are currently being invited for UAV demonstration projects).

The European Defence Agency is also involved, by funding manufacturers to develop collision-avoidance systems and other measures needed to ensure the drone programme does not fall foul of rules on the use of drones in civilian airspace. At least seven member states are exploring how they might use drones for civilian security purposes.
There has been little comment so far about these plans in general or, specifically, about Europe’s intended deployment of drones, a technology now synonymous with ‘targeted assassinations’. The UN, though, has spoken forthrightly about the US’s drone programme: Phillip Alston, the UN’s special rapporteur on extra-judicial killings, has accused it of giving the CIA a “licence to kill” and encouraging a “Playstation mentality” that devalues human life.

The hi-tech vision of the EU’s military researchers might be a less discomforting prospect if there were some assurance that the drones and other systems would simply be used to detect and rescue those on the overloaded and ramshackle boats and rafts in which so many perish.

But a sense of comfort is impossible, amid reports – for example – of European naval patrols “deliberately overturning” boats carrying migrants and of EU-sponsored Libyan patrols opening fire on Italian fishermen.

The EU’s interventions may already be making the sea more dangerous; drones and other robotic tools will add to the risks of a Playstation mentality developing along Europe’s borders.

The EU stands on the cusp of a shameful investment in a dystopia.

Ben Hayes is a project director for the civil liberties group Statewatch.

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The FP7 programme is supposed to be about implementing the ‘Lisbon strategy’ and making the EU the “most dynamic competitive knowledge-based economy in the world”. According to the Commission: “The ‘knowledge triangle’ – research, education and innovation – is a core factor in European efforts to meet the ambitious Lisbon goals. Numerous programmes, initiatives and support measures are carried out at EU level in support of knowledge”.

This includes the European Security Research Programme, which has just awarded Selex (a Finmeccanica company) a €10 million ‘research’ contract to develop an EU sea border surveillance system (the total project cost is €15.5 million, the EC contribution is €9.8 million).

The “SEABILLA” consortium, which includes a host of arms companies and defence contractors (BAE Systems, EADS, Thales, Sagem, Eurocopter, Telespazio, Alenia, TNO and others) promises to:

1) define the architecture for cost-effective European Sea Border Surveillance systems, integrating space, land, sea and air assets, including legacy systems;

2) apply advanced technological solutions to increase performances of surveillance functions;

3) develop and demonstrate significant improvements in detection, tracking, identification and automated behaviour analysis of all vessels, including hard to detect vessels, in open waters as well as close to coast.

According to the project synopsis, these surveillance systems will be used for:

a) fighting drug trafficking in the English Channel;

b) addressing illegal immigration in the South Mediterranean;

c) struggling [sic] illicit activities in open-sea in the Atlantic waters from Canary Islands to the Azores; in coherence with the EU Integrated Maritime Policy, EUROSUR and Integrated Border Management, and in compliance with Member States sovereign prerogatives.

In 2009, Finmeccanica revenues were somewhere in the region of €18 billion, of which 12% (approx €2.16 billion) was reinvested into Research and Development. Finmeccanica’s annual R&D budget is thus more than 10 times the annual budget of the entire European Security Research Programme.

Finmeccanica has already established itself as a global, market-leading provider of Homeland Security and maritime surveillance systems, as demonstrated by recent contracts with Libya and Panama (among others), each worth hundreds of millions of Euros.

This begs the obvious question of whether EU R&D subsidies for the likes of Finmeccanica are really warranted, and whether this kind of contract is strictly in accordance with FP7’s ‘knowledge triangle’ of research, education and innovation.

In reality the SEABILLA project has very little to do with innovation and everything to do with procurement. The EU is already committed to developing the kind of high-tech surveillance systems that only the defence sector can deliver [on maritime surveillance, see pages 36-40 of the NeoConOpticon report] but it lacks the mandate, budget and office to procure the requisite expertise, software and hardware.

Of course, were the EU to attempt to fulfil its ambitions by establishing a European Department of Homeland Security, there would be fierce resistance among the member states, not to mention civil society groups and a reluctant public.

What we have instead is an unaccountable EU procurement strategy – masquerading as research – committing hundreds of millions of taxpayer Euros in ‘seed money’ to security apparatuses that pre-empt both the political and legal authority needed to put them into practice.

It’s certainly innovative, but is it the kind of innovation that the architects of the FP7 programme had in mind?

Fresh from agreeing a Transatlantic government pay-off to end bribery and corruption investigations, it has emerged that BAE systems has been awarded a €2.3 million contract to develop a “Strategic crime and immigration information management system” (SCIIMS) for the European Union.

The contract has been awarded by the European Commission under the €1.4 billion EU Security Research Programme (ESRP), part of the ‘FP7‘ framework programme 2007-2013. The ESRP has been dominated by defence and IT contractors keen to diversify into the highly lucrative ‘Homeland Security’ market.

The EU contract tasks the SCIIMS consortium with developing:

“new capabilities improve the ability to search, mine, and fuse information from National, trans-national, private and other sources, to discover trends and patterns for increasing shared situational awareness and improving decision making, within a secure infrastructure to facilitate the combating of organized crime and in particular people trafficking to enhance the security of citizens”

Essentially an international police intelligence system for use by European and national agencies responsible for combating trafficking in human beings and organised crime (including EUROPOL and FRONTEX), SCIIMS represents the further outsourcing of EU policy to private contractors under the ESRP.

The stated objectives of the project are to develop “a secure information infrastructure in accordance with EU Crime and Immigration Agencies information needs” along with “tools to assist in decision making in order to predict, analyze and intervene with likely people trafficking and smuggling sources, events, and links to organized crime”.

The use of controversial information technologies such as data mining, profiling and predictive modelling are explicitly mandated by the EU contract, in spite of widespread concerns about their legality and effectiveness. Both the UN Special Rapporteur on Counter-Terrorism and Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights have recently called on governments to regulate and limit the use of these kind of technologies.

SCIIMS will mine “large data sets” in the hope of producing useful intelligence for state agents. This could include EU databases such as the EUROPOL and Schengen Information Systems, as well as national police and immigration databases in the member states. Unless these practices are regulated by national or international law, they will almost certainly be unlawful. Yet there is no mention whatsoever of data protection within the EU-BAE contract.

The SCIIMS project is coordinated by BAE Systems’ Integrated Systems Technologies Ltd. UK. BAE’s partners in the SCIIMS consortium are:

  • Elsag Datamat S.P.A., Italy (a Finmeccanica company)
  • Indra Sistemas S.A., Spain
  • Denodo Technologies SL, Spain
  • Universidade da Coruna, Spain
  • Columba Global Systems Ltd. (Ireland)
  • The Computer and Automation Research Institute of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences


Start date:2009-11-01
End date:2012-10-31 
Duration:36 months 
Project Reference:218223 
Project cost:3595562 EURO 
Project Funding:2318996 EURO 
Programme Acronym: FP7-SECURITY
Programme type:Seventh Framework Programme 
Subprogramme Area:Secure strategic information management system 
Contract type:Collaborative project (generic)

SAMURAI is a “next generation” CCTV system capable of identifying and tracking individuals “acting suspiciously” in crowded public spaces. The project has received €2.5 million in EU funding under the Fp7 security research programme.

Unlike its ninja namesake, SAMURAI uses computer algorithms to profile people’s behaviour. The system also claims to learn about how people “usually behave” in the environments where “smart CCTV” is deployed. As SAMURAI researchers explained to New Scientist magazine, the system “is designed to issue alerts when it detects behaviour that differs from the norm, and adjusts its reasoning based on feedback. So an operator might reassure the system that the person with a mop appearing to loiter in a busy thoroughfare is no threat. When another person with a mop exhibits similar behaviour, it will remember that this is not a situation that needs flagging up”.

Here’s the demonstration video:

The project is led by Queen Mary’s University in London. Partners in the EU-funded SAMURAI consortium include BAA, the Spanish-owned British airports group, UK Defence contractor Waterfall Solutions Ltd., and Elsag Datamat, the surveillance-tech subsidiary of Italian arms giant Finmeccanica.

For more information see: SAMURAI project website and “Smart CCTV learns to spot suspicious types” (New Scientist, 15.12.2009).

One of the reasons for setting-up this blog is to show how the arms industry is trying to cash-in on all things “security”. This includes everything from pandemics to paramedics. DITSEF is a new three year, €2.8 million EU funded project on “Digital and innovative technologies for security and efficiency of first responders operation” (Project Reference: 225404).

The DITSEF consortium claims that “The main problem of First Responders (FR) (fire fighters, police, etc…) in case of crisis at critical infrastructures are the loss of communication and location and the lack of information about the environment (temperature, hazardous gases, etc.)”.

The DITSEF project is led by Sagem Défense Sécurité and includes European arms giants Finmeccanica and EADS, as well as TNO, the Dutch defence research institute. The consortium does not include any “first responders”.

The recently released synopsis for the EU contract for the 3.3 million Euro ARGUS 3D project, led by SELEX Sistemi Integrati (a Finmeccanica company), is so badly written that it is difficult to ascertain exactly what the project is about:

Objective: The project aims to improve the detection of manned and unmanned platforms by exploiting the treatment of more accurate information of cooperative as well as non-cooperative flying objects, in order to identify potentially threats. The scope will be reached by managing the 3D position data in region including extended border lines and large areas, 24 hours a day and in all weather conditions, derived from enhanced existing Primary Surveillance Radar (PSR), together whit conventional data and information coming via various passive radar technique in order to extend the airspace coverage and to enhance the target recognition capability of the surveillance systems. Thus, the security could be enhanced in large areas, at sustainable costs, by improving the recognition of non-cooperative target through more accurate information on it s characteristics and/or more accurate positioning.

The project clearly concerns the development of some kind of radar system. Perhaps they mean the protection of manned and unmanned platforms, in which case it has something to do with oil rigs and such like? Or maybe it’s something to do with the detection of unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) that pose some kind of threat? Whatever this project is about, it smells a whole lot like military research, in which case it clearly should not have been funded under the ESRP. Here’s a Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems press release that may or may not be about the same kind of technology? Any information as to what this is actually all about gratefully received…

Walls alone  won't seal US borders (Image: KPA/Zuma/Rex Features)

From New Scientist, 6 January 2010, by Paul Mark

A MIGRANT makes a furtive dash across an unwalled rural section of a national border, only to be confronted by a tracked robot that looks like a tiny combat tank – with a gimballed camera for an eye. As he passes the bug-eyed droid, it follows him and a border guard’s voice booms from its loudspeaker. He has illegally entered the country, he is warned, and if he does not turn back he will be filmed and followed by the robot, or by an airborne drone, until guards apprehend him.

Welcome to the European border of the not-too-distant future. Amid the ever-present angst over illegal immigration, cross-border terrorism and contraband smuggling, some nations are turning to novel border-surveillance technologies, potentially backed up by robots, a conference on state security in Leeds, UK, heard in November. The idea is to scatter arrays of sensors in a border area in ways that give guards or robots plenty of time to respond before their targets make good an escape.

The need to secure borders is evident across the globe, from India – which is constructing a 3400-kilometre, 3-metre-high barbed-wire and concrete border wall to close itself off from Bangladesh – to Libya, where foot patrols are being augmented with new people-sensing technologies.

Libya has an agreement with the European Union to try to limit the flow of immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa traversing its borders before crossing the Mediterranean and entering Italy. To help it enforce this deal, Libya is spending €300 million on technology for what it calls a “large border security and control system”, made by Selex Sistemi Integrati, part of Italian aerospace firm Finmeccanica. Selex says its command, control and communication technology will include all the computers and software necessary to make sense of the data gathered by a raft of different sensors on the Libyan border. Project details remain under wraps, but Selex already makes acoustic, infrared and remote-imaging sensors, which could find uses in border control.

Elsewhere, the US Department of Homeland Security, along with Boeing Intelligence and Security Systems, is fielding sensors on the border with Mexico, in an $8 billion project called the Secure Border Initiative network.

SBInet will eventually comprise some 400 25-metre-high towers similar to cellphone masts and containing an array of remote-controlled optical and infrared cameras. The towers will also carry a primary sensor designed to detect humans. This sensor is a 10-gigahertz, or “X-band”, ground surveillance radar made by Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) in Tel Aviv. The towers will be dotted along the US’s 3000-kilometre triple-layered border fence.

The radar will supplement acoustic and vibration sensors strewn around the border zone that pick up voices and footfalls, and will provide patrols with early warning of activity in the border area – as far as 10 kilometres from the fence. So says Mark Borkowski, who directs the SBInet project for the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency in Washington DC.

The idea is that robotic cameras will zoom in automatically on any activity detected by radar or sensors. “Then we classify the event to gauge our response: is it just a stray cow? A person? If so, are they carrying weapons or maybe drugs?” says Borkowski. “We’re not foolish enough to think a fence alone will work: we know people can build ramps and cut through it.”

A prototype SBInet system, based on nine temporary towers, has been tested on a 45-kilometre stretch of the US-Mexico border near Sasabe, Arizona, for the past three years. Called Project 28, it had problems: the X-band radar produced too much signal clutter from the ground, making it tough to detect human activity. And the satellite links it used took too long to send sensor data to base – so people had often disappeared by the time an alert was raised.

The radar has been modified and satellite links abandoned in favour of fast ground-based microwave links, says Tim Peters, Boeing’s SBInet project chief. The project moves to its deployment phase in mid-2010, when 17 permanent towers near Tucson will be turned on. Magnetic sensors will be added to detect vehicle movements and weapons, too. CBP is also trialling Predator drones on the border to feed surveillance pictures into SBInet.

IAI is a partner in the EU’s Transportable Autonomous Patrol for Land Border Surveillance (TALOS) programme, which eschews static ground sensors and border walls in favour of the aforementioned bug-eyed robots – replete with human-sensing radar – and aerial drones.

TALOS is needed because the expanded 27-nation EU has a porous eastern border that it cannot afford to monitor conventionally, says Agnieszka Spronska of the Industrial Research Institute for Automation and Measurements (PIAP), based in Warsaw, Poland. PIAP is leading the 10-nation TALOS consortium, which is spending €20 million on developing the architecture for a mobile network of ground robots, drones and the command centres from which they are run.

“TALOS will be very scalable depending on the terrain – you can use as much of it as you need without static elements,” says Spronska. More than one ground robot will approach people, she says, as groups often split up.

More than one of the ground-based robots will approach people, as groups often split up

But where does this deep-probing 24/7 surveillance technology leave residents who are living near borders, in terms of privacy? “We protect the camera and sensor systems from any kind of illegal or unauthorised use,” says Borkowski. “But it is indeed a balancing act. People are right to be asking such questions.”

Issue 2742 of New Scientist magazine

selex reported yesterday that Libya has signed a 300 million euro ($441.3 million) contract with Italy’s Finmeccanica for a border control and security system.

According to the report, the deal between Finmeccanica unit Selex Sistemi Integrati and the Libyan General People’s Committee for General Security, is split into tranches, with the first 150 million euro tranche of work already under way.

“Selex Sistemi Integrati, in line with its mission of prime responsibility for the architecture of large systems within Finmeccanica, will design, install and integrate all the subsystems of the program,” the firm said in a statement.

“In addition, the company will provide all the typical functionalities of a [command, control and communication] system, such as command decision support tools, information processing, integration of data gathered by different sensors – provided by Selex Sistemi Integrati itself – and emergency management,” according to the statement. “Selex Sistemi Integrati will also be responsible for the training of operators and maintenance staff as well as the completion of all the civil infrastructures required.”

A triumph for EU policy

The links between this deal and EU policy are abundantly clear. Colonel Gaddafi was welcomed back into the ‘international community’ in 2003 in return for agreeing to Libya’s cooperation in Europe’s ‘migration management’ programme (the arms embargo was lifted a week later), while Finmeccanica has been one of the key players in the development and implementation of the European Security Research Programme.

Finmeccanica is rapporteur for the EU working group on border controls in the European Security Research and Innovation Forum, and Finemeccanica/Selex ‘research’ in this area has been supported by numerous EU contracts (see for example SOCBAH, OPREMAR, MARISS and BSUAV (among others) – all of which are detailed in the NeoConOpticon report – see pp. 33-41. The report also details the kinds of integrated border controls that are envisaged for clients like Libya).

Migrants and would-be refugees bound for Europe already suffer appalling conditions at the hands of the Libyan authorities. See for example “Pushed Back, Pushed Around: Italy’s Forced Return of Boat Migrants and Asylum Seekers, Libya’s Mistreatment of Migrants and Asylum Seekers,” a Human Rights Watch report examining the treatment of migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees in Libya through the eyes of those who have managed to leave and are now in Italy and Malta.