How can we ensure that consent is really informed and freely given in situations where power imbalances occur, together with cultural obstacles and emotional implications? Scholars Georgios Glouftsios, Stefania Milan, and Gianclaudio Malgieri tried to answer this question within the framework of “Data Dilemmas 2021 ”.
Biometrics imply that the knowledge of the human body reveals something about the human self. These technologies do not just seek to establish the identity of an individual, but they also provide authorities with access to digital files that contain various administrative information about them. Such information can reveal, for example, when and where a migrant applied for asylum, when and where he or she applied for a visa, and so on. Georgios Glouftsios’ work as a postdoctoral researcher at the School of International Studies of the University of Trento has led him to the conclusion that data extracted from bodies and their links with such administrative information are used to make migrants “controllable subjects”.
Referring to the book of Simone Browne (Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness) Glouftsios explains that this kind of obsession with controlling bodies has a long history that can be traced back to the transatlantic slave trade. As Browne shows in her book, the branding of slaves with hot iron used to function as an early biometric technology: it was a practice through which enslaved people were signified as commodities to be bought and sold and traded. The brand, in that context, denoted the relation between the black body and the “owner”. Slave branding was a rationalising act: by turning black bodies into a commodity, it allowed their dehumanisation to fit them into a system of exploitation for profit.
Today, branding with biometric identification technologies used for border and migration management is of course something else. However, Glouftsios believes that the operational logic is quite similar: non-Europeans are other-ed as digital codes give them new meaning and identity. Codes are used to categorise them as “migrants” and “asylum seekers”; they are treated as inherently suspect subjects, not on the basis of past conduct, but of their nationality and non-white, non-European background.
In fact, the list of countries whose citizens are required to apply for a visa before travelling to the EU and thus get registered in the visa information system are mainly from the global south. As part of the visa application process, these people are required to provide body evidence in the form of biometric data, which is registered in pan-European databases used by state authorities to control their movements. In the context of migration management, such control of movements takes the form of traceability (the ability of the state to predict their movements and bureaucratic traceability through identification first, and then digital traces) and containment (with the purpose of slowing down, intercepting, and redirecting migrants).
There are several biometric databases in Europe. EURODAC (European Dactyloscopy) registers fingerprints of asylum seekers – but also people caught crossing borders illegally – and helps determine which member state is responsible for examining the application. The Visa Information System (VIS) enables the consulates of EU member states in countries where asylum seekers live to create digital files for people applying for visas before they travel to the EU. These files are then consulted to understand whether applicants intend to migrate from the member states afte