At the opening of the Thessaloniki International Trade Fair this September, Greek migration minister Notis Mitarakis – otherwise known for dismissing the ongoing evidence of Greek border guards’ brutal and illegal pushbacks of asylum seekers as “fake news” – made national headlines when he introduced his ministry’s latest project: €3.7m funding for drones with “innovative algorithms” that can “automatically identify defined targets of interest” at the Greek border.
What did he mean? In a demo video, two men – one in sunglasses and a red shirt, another blurred – walk next to a line drawn through a field, with boxes marking them as “person”. As the guy in sunglasses walks closer towards the line, he gets labeled as “person of interest”. He starts running, jumps over the line, runs, lies down on a bench, disappearing from view. When he gets up, the box keeps tracking him.
EU funding for Greek security projects
“I actually recognize people from my department in this video”, one IT researcher told us, chuckling, at the Greek Ministry for Migration’s stall at the Thessaloniki Trade Fair on 13 September.
His department – the Information Technologies Institute at the Center for Research and Technology Hellas (CERTH) – is in a quiet building in the outskirts of Thessaloniki. Here, researchers work on 27 different projects, mostly funded by the European Commission.
The first time CERTH got funding for a security project was in 2017, when the European Union’s research and innovation program Horizon 2020 paid them to coordinate “ROBORDER”, an €8m project which aimed to develop and pilot “a fully autonomous border surveillance system” where, researchers said, robots will be able to identify humans and independently decide if they represent a threat. These days, the CERTH researcher says, there is a lot of interest from European institutions for funding “security projects”.
Now, REACTION, or “Real-Time Artificial Intelligence for Border Surveillance” will also be CERTH-coordinated and funded by the European Commission’s Migration and Home Affairs Fund. It is set to start in November 2022, and run for 36 months.
Computer scientist Stathes Hadjiefthymiades, who is part of the REACTION team, said they want to combine the research from ROBORDER and “AIDERS” – another EU-funded project aimed at processing data from drones, sensors and cameras to “improve emergency responses” in case of a fire, flood or shipwreck. The aim, he says, is to bring the technologies – “or goodies”, as he calls them – into the hands of the police, who want drones (as well as thermal sensors, motion detectors and cameras already installed at the Greek border) to alert them of border crossings.
Once alerted, law enforcement will “not necessarily” stop people from crossing into Greece, Mr Hadjiefthymiades said. They could also be arrested or brought to camps and be instructed on how to apply for asylum. He added that pushbacks, which Amnesty International describes as “Greece’s de facto border policy”, are “in the news” but he does not believe that Greek border guards are pushing boats of asylum seekers back to Turkey.
In his speech at the Thessaloniki Trade Fair, migration minister Mr Mitarakis said REACTION’s “use of artificial intelligence” will allow drones to identify and monitor “targets of interest”. However, one young man from the research consortium told us that “[the Migration Ministry] do not really know anything about what we are doing”, because they are “in a different field” and are “end users”.
At the Thessaloniki Trade Fair, three drones were on display at the Greek Migration Ministry’s stall. Two were from the Chinese commercial drone maker DJI. The third was wrapped in wires and was, a presenter explained, trained to do what Mr Mitarakis said: scan an area, and, if it spots something “more interesting”, like a person crossing a border, independently change its course to track this person. However, the presenter told us, it is the only drone they have that can do this, because “on-board processing” is very expensive and requires a lot of energy.
Mr Hadjiefthymiades confirmed that they were “dealing with reduced-size drones with limited on-board power. We are struggling to do on-board intelligence with off-the-shelf drones.”
In the brochure for REACTION, the Greek migration ministry says that one of the project’s aims is “to use the funding to buy equipment needed for the border project.”
Search and Rescue
After police are alerted about a person or vehicle crossing the Greek border, “they will go see what is happening”, the young man from the research consortium told us. A woman, overhearing this, said angrily, “I will tell you what they do, they will either come with guns to shoot, or they will beat them”. Later, the young man admitted, “For me, the one thing is, I don’t know exactly what the police will do to the migrants after we alert them.” He grimaced. “But what can I do,” he said.
When asked about REACTION’s claim that it will be used for “search and rescue”, the young man said he believed that people at the “Multimedia Knowledge Lab” at CERTH are training an algorithm to spot if someone is injured at the border. But Yiannis Kompatsiaris, a senior researcher there, told us that his lab is not currently training such an algorithm.
In recent years, the Greek Coast Guard, like other European authorities, was repeatedly accused of delaying rescue operations. Earlier this month, Deutsche Welle published a report which showed that Greek authorities left a group of 38 asylum-seekers stranded on an islet on the Evros river, which marks most of the border between Greece and Turkey, despite a nearby pylon with heat sensors and cameras, which should have been able to immediately locate the group.
Since 2017, open-source researcher Phevos Simeonidis tracks local and EU-funded border surveillance projects in Greece. So far, he says, “this ever-increasing apparatus always seems to fall short of assisting search and rescue, and also evidently turns a blind eye when footage or data could help individuals substantiate claims that they have been victims of human rights violations.”
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