18th Jan 2021


EU agencies tested monitoring data on refugees

  • In the wake of the refugee crisis of 2015, EU agencies, tech companies and research consortiums started exploring the use of these new data sources to predict movements of migrants into Europe (Photo: The Bureau of Investigative Journalism)

Governments across the EU are pushing for high-tech solutions to reduce the spread of the Covid-19 virus. Contact tracing and tracking the movements of infected people is just one example.

As debate around this issue grows, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism reveals that the new science of predicting and monitoring population movements is already here – and EU agencies have been testing it on refugees and migrants.

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  • A key player in marketing this concept was the European Space Agency (ESA) – an organisation based in Paris, with a major spaceport in French Guiana (Photo: The Bureau of Investigative Journalism)

Recent years have seen an explosion in data sources which can cast light on people's movements, including satellites, drones, mobile phones and social media.

Companies and research projects are jostling to exploit these sources. Data scientists are intrigued by these new possibilities for behavioural prediction.

But they are also coming to terms with the complexity of actually using such data, and the ethical and practical problems that come along with it.

International humanitarian organisations have long been interested in whether they can use non-traditional data sources to help plan disaster responses.

As they often operate in inaccessible regions with little available or accurate official data about population sizes and movements, they can benefit from using new big data sources to estimate how many people are moving where.

In the wake of the refugee crisis of 2015, however, EU agencies, tech companies and research consortiums started exploring the use of these new data sources to predict movements of migrants into Europe.

Migrant movements

These included relatively simple efforts to extract intelligence by combing through social media profiles. On the more complex end was automated manipulation of big data sets through image recognition and machine learning.

A key player in marketing this concept was the European Space Agency (ESA) – an organisation based in Paris, with a major spaceport in French Guiana.

The ESA's pitch was to combine its space assets with other people's data, creating commercially viable "disruptive smart technologies".

"Europe is being confronted with the most significant influxes of migrants and refugees in its history," a 2016 ESA presentation stated.

"One burning issue is the lack of timely information on migration trends, flows and rates. Big data applications have been recognised as a potentially powerful tool."

It decided to assess how it could harness such data. It reached out to EU agencies – including Frontex, the border enforcement agency, and EASO, the European Asylum Support Office – with a collaborative pitch.

Various companies were brought on board to conduct "feasibility studies".

They included GMV, a privately-owned tech group covering banking, defence, health, telecommunications and satellites. GMV put together a project integrating "multiple space assets" with other sources including mobile phones and social media.

Also involved was CGI. This technology multinational had previously worked with the Dutch Statistics Office assessing how satellite images and social media could indicate changes in migration patterns in Niger.

Internal notes released by the EASO to The Bureau show the range of companies trying to get a slice of the action.

The agency had considered offers of services not only from the ESA, GMV and CGI, but also from BIP, a consulting firm, the aerospace group Thales Alenia, the geo-information specialist EGEOS and Vodafone.

Some of the pitches were better received than others. An EASO analyst who took notes on the various proposals remarked that "most oversell a bit".

They went on: "Some claimed they could trace GSM [ie mobile networks] but then clarified they could do it for Venezuelans only, and maybe one or two countries in Africa."

Financial implications were not always clearly provided.

On the other hand, the official noted, the ESA and its consortium would pay 80 percent of costs and "we can get collaboration on something we plan to do anyway".

The features on offer included automatic alerts, a social media timeline, sentiment analysis, the detection and monitoring of smuggling sites, hotspot maps, change detection and border monitoring.

The document notes a group of services available from Vodafone, for example, in the context of a proposed project to monitor asylum centres in Italy.

The proposal was to identify "hotspot activities", using phone data. It would be used to group individuals either by nationality or "according to where they spend the night". It would also test if their movements into the country from abroad could be back-tracked.

A tentative estimate for the cost of a pilot project, spread over four municipalities, came to €250,000 – of which an unspecified amount was for "regulatory (privacy) issues".

EASO eventually "took a decision not to get involved" in the various proposals it had received, it told The Bureau.

The Space Agency and its corporate partners completed four initial projects. These, it said, "confirmed the usefulness" of combining space technology and big data for monitoring migration movements.

CGI's study, for example, found that it could automatically detect "groups of people, traces of trucks at unexpected places, tent camps, waste heaps and boats". It could also offer insight into "the sentiments of migrants at certain moments" and "information that is shared about routes and motives for taking certain routes".

Armed with this data, the company argued that it could create a service which could predict the possible outcomes of migration movements before they happened.

The feasibility studies were supposed to evolve in 2019 into a further "operational phase". So far, this has not happened.

CGI told The Bureau that "since the completion of the project [with ESA], we have not carried out any extra activities in this domain". GMV has ongoing projects looking at big data and migration but emphasised to The Bureau that these are of a humanitarian nature.

ESA said that despite "internal delays", its corporate partners were working on follow-on projects.

As EU agencies and tech companies explore these new tools for predicting refugee movements, the humanitarian sector has been doing some soul-searching about such applications.

At a conference in Berlin in October 2019, dozens of specialists from academia, government and the humanitarian sector debated the use of these new technologies for "forecasting human mobility in contexts of crises".

Red flags

Their conclusions raised numerous red flags.

They found a "striking absence" of agreed core principles. It was hard to balance the potential good with ethical concerns.

This is because the most useful data tended to be more specific, leading to greater risks of misuse and even, in the worst case scenario, weaponisation of the data.

Partnerships with corporations introduced transparency complications. Communication of predictive findings to decision makers was identified as a particular problem.

The full consequences of relying on artificial intelligence and "employing large scale, automated, and combined analysis of datasets of different sources" to predict movements in a crisis could not be foreseen, the workshop report concluded.

"Humanitarian and political actors who base their decisions on such analytics must therefore carefully reflect on the potential risks."

Author bio

Crofton Black is a researcher with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. This story is based on a longer version first published by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. It is reproduced here under a Creative Commons licence.

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