How the Pandemic Turned Refugees Into ‘Guinea Pigs’ for Surveillance Tech
An interview with Dr. Petra Molnar, who spent 2020 investigating the use of drones, facial recognition, and lidar on refugees
The coronavirus pandemic unleashed a new era in surveillance technology, and arguably no group has felt this more acutely than refugees. Even before the pandemic, refugees were subjected to contact tracing, drone and LIDAR tracking, and facial recognition en masse. Since the pandemic, it’s only gotten worse. For a microcosm of how bad the pandemic has been for refugees — both in terms of civil liberties and suffering under the virus — look no further than Greece.
Greek refugee camps are among the largest in Europe, and they are overpopulated, with scarce access to water, food, and basic necessities, and under constant surveillance. Researchers say that many of the surveillance techniques and technologies — especially experimental, rudimentary, and low-cost ones — used to corral refugees around the world were often tested in these camps first.
“Certain communities already marginalized, disenfranchised are being used as guinea pigs, but the concern is that all of these technologies will be rolled out against the broader population and normalized,” says Petra Molnar, Associate Director of the Refugee Law Lab, York University.
Molnar traveled to the Greek refugee camps on Lesbos in 2020 as part of a fact-finding project with the advocacy group European Digital Rights (EDRi). She arrived right after the Moria camp — the largest in Europe at the time — burned down and forced the relocation of thousands of refugees. Since her visit, she has been concerned about the rise of authoritarian technology and how it might be used against the powerless.
With the pandemic still raging and states more desperate than ever to contain it, it seemed a good time to discuss the uses and implications of surveillance in the refugee camps. Molnar, who is still in Greece and plans to continue visiting the camps once the nation’s second lockdown lifts, spoke to OneZero about the kinds of surveillance technology she saw deployed there, and what the future holds — particularly with the European Border and Coast Guard Agency…