One idea behind e-Borders is that the name of each person who enters or leaves the United Kingdom will be checked against the lists of criminals and terrorists kept by the security services and the police. It sounds simple, but the problems with making it work have turned out to be formidable. One of them has more to do with human fallibility than computer problems …. (Palmer, 2014)
In 2003, the UK expressed an interest in implementing e-Borders as a way to achieve four goals by 2011:
- collect information about passengers prior to their arrival, such as advance passenger information (API) held on passports or other identification;
- centrally store and analyse that data to identify potentially dangerous people;
- communicate these results to border officials to aid decision-making; and
- create ways of record-keeping that allow officials to track people (National Audit Office, 2015).
From April 2006 to March 2015, well after the 2011 target, the government spent £830 million in efforts to roll out e-Borders and subsequent schemes. An independent audit observed how failings in planning, management, and organisational culture posed significant risks to its enactment (National Audit Office, 2015).
How do border security practitioners engage with data and technology, and what difficulties or limitations arise from these engagements? Responding to calls for critically examining how technological ‘solutions’ are enacted, MigrationWork Director Bastian Vollmer together with William L Allen from the the Centre on Migration, Policy, and Society, University of Oxford analyse the notion of e-Borders in the UK context as an assemblage comprising abstract conditions, concrete objects, and agents whose roles often manifest themselves through perceptions and practices.
Drawing on interviews with former and currently serving senior staff from the UK Home Office, UK Border Force, intelligence services, and private sector suppliers, they examine how practitioners’ reflections reveal how political, social, and human factors – including intuition and management cultures – both construct the e-Border assemblage and introduce discontinuities and frictions within it.
Using a more tightly specified theory of assemblage, they highlight how human agents contribute to datafied phenomena like border control. In total, our study emphasises how assemblages are dynamic, never entirely coherent, and always being re-made.