The Technologization of European Union Border Control: Political Agency Steering Societally Significant Practices

Tutkimustuotos: Doctoral thesisCollection of Articles


This dissertation studies political agency, which shapes automated border control (ABC) policies and the ensuing border control practices in the European Union (EU). In the articles of which the dissertation is composed, we research the subjective orientation of parliamentarians and stakeholders involved in the decisionmaking processes on the technologization and digitalization of border control. The motivation for the research initially came from the European Commission’s push to harmonize and automate border control in the Schengen area of free mobility. Essentially, the Commission has been advocating for harmonized, electronic, automated border control gates, which use sensitive biometric identifiers, such as fingerprints recorded on the electronic passport to speed up border control for the masses and allow for the border control officials to concentrate on ‘high-risk’ travellers.

Automated border control is a part of a wider trend where societal surveillance has shifted from a physical process at the border to a complex information technology driven data governance and surveillance apparatus. The EU is a prime example of an actor pushing for an assessment of the ‘risks’ travellers pose before they travel utilizing a large amount of passenger data. Large registers of people’s personal information, ranging from dietary restrictions to iris scans are now used and shared to determine the risks, and for several reasons, this warrants critical scrutiny. For instance, it is tempting for multi-function institutions such as governments to subsequently use data of registers for purposes other than those for what it was collected. In the EU it is now envisioned that e.g. national law enforcement agencies would have access to border control data to solve crimes classified as serious and to combat terrorism. The potential ‘function creeps’ may become dangerous, e.g. for any kinds of minorities, political opponents of governments etc. since societal conditions change over time but the data remains on record.

The aim of the first two articles of the dissertation is to understand what kind of automated border control devices and practices are politically acceptable to the participants acting as decision-makers and experts in EU Member States. We study Finnish decision-makers’ subjective orientation in our first iteration and compare those of four EU Member States in the second one. This is a novel line of enquiry given the lack so far of studies at the level of Member States. Existing literature has overall been quite theoretical and not empirically, especially experimentally rich. The novelty value is also tied to the fact that these policies and technologies are somewhat new and have thus not yet been studied in detail from the societal and political point of view.

In the third article, we also establish another new avenue of research: we research how people with disabilities should be taken into account when designing technologically reinforced border control systems in the EU. Furthermore – as a leap towards the more abstract and broader issue of how International Relations (IR) should research subjective agency – the fourth article argues for the potential in combining a recent IR venture in ontology, namely Alexander Wendt’s (2015) quantum social ontology with the main methodology applied in the thesis, Q methodology.

The thesis is empirically driven, and the first three articles report the results of our empirical work carried out with Q methodology, a questionnaire and interviews. The work is critical of ‘armchair research’, which the research concerning (European) border control often is, although it recognizes the important ethical arguments of IR’s critical security studies. The interest in empirical work is reiterated in the fourth article, which presents ideas on how to operationalise Wendt’s ontological notions with the help of Q methodology in (future) empirical social scientific work. The heuristic background of the dissertation is in ‘practice-oriented’ IR. This includes commitments to pragmatism and practice theory, but also criticism of those theory traditions, since research making use of them paradoxically does not often progress beyond the level of theoretical constructs and theoretical feuds within IR.

The dissertation finds three distinct factors or view types on ABC in both the first and second articles. The latter are more significant, since the first article is a ‘pilot iteration’ for Finnish participants, while the second compares political views in Finland, Romania, Spain and the United Kingdom. Article II finds that the views on ABC are tied to the political affiliation rather than e.g. the nationality of the participants. Participants espousing the first view were politically oriented to the (centre) left and were worried about the potential erosion of civil liberties, the lack of due process and the disadvantages of technocracy in the context of ABC. Participants supporting the second view came from (centre) right political parties and welcomed technologically enforced border control with its risk profiling approach as an increase in security and efficacy. The third view was supported by Eurosceptic (far) right parties and used the core strategies of populist argumentation. Its supporters were concerned about increasing immigration and demanded that border control be organized nationally.

The third article finds that a universal design concept in (ABC) technology development should be adopted both from the standpoint of equal rights and usability, and thus also the efficacy of the technology. It also finds that accessibility of people with disabilities is feasible from the technological, economic and operational points of view, especially if this accessibility requirement is made in the tenders of ABC technology and vulnerable groups such as people with disabilities are involved in the design processes.

Finally, the fourth research article finds that there is ample potential for combining Q methodology and the quantum social ontology in future work on subjective agency in IR, which is regrettably an understudied area of IR, as the concepts ‘international’ and ‘politics’ would not exist without human agency. The compatibility of the methodology and the views on ontology – whether the quantum view is indeed taken as an ontology, an analogy or a heuristic – stems from their shared principles as regards measuring states of mind and states of matter, their rejection of rational choice and their belief in creative potential in agency.
KustantajaTampere University
ISBN (elektroninen)978-952-03-1591-7
ISBN (painettu)978-952-03-1590-0
TilaJulkaistu - 2020
OKM-julkaisutyyppiG5 Artikkeliväitöskirja


NimiTampere University Dissertations - Tampereen yliopiston väitöskirjat
ISSN (painettu)2489-9860
ISSN (elektroninen)2490-0028


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