Transnational border surveillance and social sorting systems in the EU: a changing approach to Europe's borders?


  • Magdalena Christine König



In recent years, the European Union (EU) has widened its competences considerably in the field of transnational surveillance. The main databases for border movements, Schengen Information System (SIS), Visa Information System (VIS), and Eurodac, are planned to merge increasingly to ensure maximum efficiency in surveillance. These databases are keeping track of movement within the EU and across its borders, mainly for the purpose of controlling migration . This process of harmonising migration surveillance systems is controversial. All three databases entail large-scale surveillance of migrants and travellers thereby turning every recorded individual into a potential suspect. As the European Data Protection Supervisor stated, "all travellers are put under surveillance and are considered a priori as potential law breakers".David Lyon (2003), the founder of surveillance studies, assesses that transnational surveillance systems classify individuals according to certain criteria that allow for discriminatory treatment. Thereby, social differences are created and stored, which he labels social sorting. Social sorting, in other words, refers to surveillance systems obtaining data for the purpose of classifying people according to specific criteria. Classification occurs according to risk categories such as citizens, migrants or potential criminals. This may lead to establishing or strengthening social differences. Starting out from Lyon's assumption that every form of surveillance entails social sorting, this paper assesses in how far and with what consequences such classification is found in present-day EU surveillance systems. If they display social sorting characteristics to a high degree, this indicates that the traditional function of borders of exclusion and inclusion of migrants is to some extent taken over by the new surveillance systems. The question then arises how this form of social sorting affects the concept of the border in the EU. The intended merger of transnational databases will create an increasingly sophisticated information infrastructure that may alter the function of territorial boundaries. If border surveillance is no longer confined to checking documents "on the ground" but is carried out "in the cloud", what does this entail for the concept of the territorial border?