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VUB Chair in Surveillance Studies Seminar VI: Automaticity, Algorithmic Profiling and Facial Recognition at the EU Borders with Niovi Vavoula, chaired by Gloria González Fuster

Wednesday, 27 October, 2021 - 13:00
Campus: Brussels Humanities, Sciences & Engineering campus
Faculty: Recht en Criminologie
Online (Microsoft Teams)
VUB Chair in Surveillance Studies


Since the past few decades, the EU legislator has heavily relied on the use of digital technologies to identify and prevent the entry and/or stay of perceived risky foreigners. These efforts have culminated in the development of an elaborate network of centralised information systems, the use of drones and radars or routine biometric identification. In this emerging system of datafication and interoperable databases storing millions of records, border guards and immigration officers will be unable to cope without new technological solutions, namely Artificial Intelligence (AI) tools, such as algorithms, whereby computational artefacts may perform tasks that would otherwise require human intelligence for their execution. Indeed, AI promises modernised border controls, expedited and more efficient decision-making in relation to visa residence permit or asylum applications. In the operationalisation of EU information systems for third country nationals, the embedment of AI tools is already a reality, through algorithmic profiling and the preparation for incorporating facial recognition components. Furthermore, in 2020, the European Commission published a report setting out the opportunities and challenges from embedding AI tools for immigration purposes and announced a portfolio with initiatives. Emphasis is on ‘smoothing’ the application processes for visas, and on enabling conversational interfaces with ‘intelligent agents’, which will replace immigration officers. Whether a foreigner is risky for public security will be predicted through AI tools that will make inferences about patterns and future behaviour. However, these new AI tools may reinforce non-entreé policies and entails significant human rights implications, in relation to the right to privacy and data protection, or the right to an effective remedy. Algorithmic bias is also a significant risk.

This seminar will focus on two major examples of surveillance through AI tools; the use of algorithmic profiling in the examination of applications for travel authorisations and visas in the operationalisation of Visa Information System (VIS) and the European Travel Information and Authorisation System (ETIAS) and the progressive move towards facial recognition technology. The seminar understands this ongoing recourse to digital technologies as techno-solutionism, the sole purpose of which is to identify whether a foreigner represents a risk, which justifies surveillance. This ongoing intertwining of foreigners with security threats that accompanies foreigners constitutes a major driver for a relentless process of digitalisation fed by technological evolution, with significant fundamental rights challenges. Then, the seminar will critically examine these challenges and will provide insights into the future of surveillance at EU borders via AI tools, that enable emotion recognition, dialect recognition or multi-modal biometric identification.

About the speaker

Dr Niovi Vavoula is Lecturer in Migration and Security since 2018 and Associate Editor of the New Journal of European Criminal Law (NJECL), responsible for the peer review of articles, case notes and analyses. She was previously Post-Doctoral Research Assistant in the School of Law of Queen Mary University of London and part-time teacher at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). She regularly collaborates with the ODYSSEUS Academic Network for Legal Studies on Immigration and Asylum in Europe as a member of the OMNIA project, as well the European Criminal Law Academic Network (ECLAN). She has given guest lectures at the Law School of the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens (2018), Aristotle University of Thessaloniki (2016), City University London (2014). She has held a visiting position at ULB - Université Libre de Bruxelles (2014) and in 2021, she will be an Erasmus + Visiting Lecturer at the University of Bologna. She is a qualified lawyer at the Court of Appeal with Athens Bar Association (2011). Before commencing her doctoral studies she volunteered for the Legal Department of the Greek Council for Refugees and did an internship for the Greek Desk at Eurojust. She publishes in the areas of EU Immigration, Criminal law and Privacy law and has acted as an expert consultant for the European Commission, the European Parliament and the Fundamental Rights Agency. Her forthcoming monograph explores the privacy and data protection challenges stemming from the establishment and operation of EU-wide centralised information systems and will be published by Brill in 2021. 

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