Frontex Files: The Military-Border Police Complex

Following Freedom of Information requests, the EU Border Agency has released over one hundred presentations, most of which feature companies promoting their military technologies for securing Europe’s external borders. Deployments to counter migration use drones, satellites, high-resolution cameras and radars, pattern and behaviour recognition, and lead-free ammunition.

As announced in advance, the German TV „ZDF Magazin Royale“ published the „Frontex Files“ last night: a compilation of more than a hundred presentations given by a few dozen manufacturers of surveillance technology to the EU border agency over the past four years. Frontex regularly invites to so-called „Industry Days“, where the companies exchange information with interior ministries and border forces.

The documents come from freedom of information requests, brought to light by Luisa Izuzquiza, who works for Corporate Europe Observatory in Brussels, and Margarida Silva and Myriam Douo. With the platform „Frag den Staat“, Izuzquiza is being sued by Frontex for 24,000 Euros in legal fees after losing a case at the European Court of Justice. The agency was asked to provide information on which see-going units it deploys for migration defence in the Mediterranean. With the names of the ships, the activists wanted to track whether they were involved in illegal deportations back to Libya. Now the „Frontex Files“ are on the servers of „Frag den Staat“.

Frontex’s budget has risen sharply in recent years and totalled 460 million Euros for 2020, for this year it amounts to 544 million. In addition, a new Frontex regulation has been in force for more than a year, according to which the agency will establish a „Standing Corps“ of 10,000 officers by 2027. Frontex will receive competences that were previously reserved for the EU member states. The budget for the next seven years will therefore increase to 5.6 billion Euros, more than half of which will go to the new border force. Frontex wants to spend a large part of the money, namely around 2.2 billion, on new equipment. From 2024, Frontex wants to build a new headquarters in Warsaw, the building is to cost at least 140 million Euros.

EU Defence Agency and NATO as partners

The „Frontex Files“ are particularly extensive on several conferences held by Frontex in 2019. Under the title „Technical Foresight Dialogue“, for example, Fabrice Leggeri, the agency’s head, invited the largest European defence companies to its headquarters in Warsaw on 16 May 2019. From the event, Frontex hoped to receive proposals on which military technologies could be used in the future to secure the EU’s external borders.

Frontex has already been using satellite surveillance and drones for several years, spending hundreds of millions of Euros on them. With EUROSUR, Frontex operates a network that collects incidents at all EU external borders. With the „Technical Foresight Dialogue“, this inventory is now to be expanded. The invitation was accepted by the European company Airbus, Leonardo from Italy, Indra and GMV from Spain, as well as the company NEC from Japan, which specialises in biometric security solutions.

The applications presented by the companies are considered „dual use“ and can therefore be used in combat operations or by the police. Drones and drone defence, space technology, optical and radar-based sensor technology, software and hardware for the processing of big amounts of data and the creation of situational awareness, pattern and behaviour recognition and the consolidation of all information in futuristic-looking control centres were advertised.

The military character of the event is not only reflected in the invited defence companies. Frontex names the EU Defence Agency and the Conference of National Armament Directors of NATO member and partner countries as partners of the conference. The grouping is responsible for cooperation in the research, development and production of military equipment and weapons systems.

Drones and Zeppelins

In total, the „Frontex Files“ contain documents on 17 „Industry Days“ or similar events in Warsaw. The invited companies therefore provide a good overview of who is currently making big money from European migration defence. Of the 138 private parties Frontex met with, 108 were companies. For example, the German Airbus spin-off Hensoldt Optronics, which specialises in military sensor technology, as well as the French defence company Thales, Leonardo from Italy, and Elbit Systems, both from Israel, came to the „Meeting Frontex – Border Guard Authorities – Industry“ on 20 November 2018. T-Systems is also on the list of participants, but the German company apparently did not give a presentation.

Only a small circle was invited to the „Maritime Analysis Tools Day“ in Warsaw on 7 September 2017. Presentations were given there by the defence companies Airbus, Leonardo, BAE and the Israeli company Windward, which specialises in merging public and official maritime data. The Israeli Ministry of the Interior was involved in a corresponding EU research project. A year later, Windward was awarded a first contract to set up such a platform at Frontex headquarters.

Airbus and Leonardo are premium partners of the border agency, according to the „Frontex Files“. Both companies have also won several large Frontex contracts, both companies stationing, for example, drones in the Mediterranean. Airbus was recently awarded a contract worth 50 million Euros. Airbus also presented its Zeppelin „Altair“ at the „Industry Days“ on 24 and 25 September 2019. Here, however, the corporation came away empty-handed, as Frontex decided in the meantime to conduct the second test of a so-called aerostat under the leadership of the German company in-innovative navigation from Kornwestheim.

„Border management“ with biometrics and lie detectors

Many presentations in the „Frontex Files“ deal with the conference „Biometrics for Borders“, which Frontex held in Warsaw on 9 and 10 October 2019. The background is the introduction of new systems for border control, for which Frontex is partly responsible. From 2023, the EU will start operating an „Entry/Exit System“ (EES), where all adults and children from third countries will have to give their facial image and four fingerprints. In addition, there is a „European Travel Information and Authorization System“ (ETIAS) in which Frontex is involved. Before crossing the border, travellers have to provide the border police via a virtual avatar with information about their travel itinerary. A behavioural recognition technology observes the facial expressions of the persons and, in case of conspicuousness, leaves a note for the border officials who later carry out the control. Frontex has been researching such lie detectors for about ten years.

The new „border management“ systems offer a huge sales market for companies specialising in biometrics. Scanners, self-service terminals, software and hardware and server systems are needed. The establishment of the EES and the ETIAS goes hand in hand with the merging of all EU information systems containing biometric data. To this end, the EU Commission is procuring a recognition system that will cost a total of 300 million Euros. It is therefore not surprising that its manufacturer, the French company Idemia, is regularly invited to the relevant Frontex conferences as the market leader.

A special focus of the event on „Biometrics for Borders“ was on methods to detect morphing. A year earlier, activists from the German artists collective Peng! project „Mask ID“ had tricked a Berlin citizens‘ office into accepting a manipulated photo for a passport. This biometric photo also depicted a member of the then EU foreign affairs commissioner Federica Mogherini.

The German Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA), among others, referred to this and warned in its presentation against misuse of the technology. In the same year, after FIDELITY, the second EU project SOTAMD started for research on morphing recognition technologies, in which the BKA is again involved.

„In a short time“ equipment with weapons and ammunition

However, the „Frontex Files“ are particularly revealing with regard to equipment with weapons and ammunition. The new Frontex regulation stipulates the establishment of a „Category 1“ consisting of 3,000 officers; for the first time, this border force is directly subordinate to the headquarters in Warsaw. It should be ready for action on 1 January 2021, armed with pistol, baton, handcuffs and mace.

However, with its headquarters in Warsaw, Frontex is not considered under Polish law and the headquarters agreement with the Polish government to be a unit that can acquire, register, store or transport weapons or ammunition to areas of operation. Frontex has been aware of this for almost a year through two expert reports. Notwithstanding the legal uncertainty, the agency has prepared a tender for the guns, ammunition and „non-lethal equipment“ and held talks with arms suppliers. According to a document published by the British civil rights organisation Statewatch, these would have promised rapid delivery if the contract was awarded.

What this means can now be read in the „Frontex Files“. According to it, the border agency held an „Industry Dialogue – Procurement of handguns, ammunition and holsters“ on 9 and 10 December 2019. Invited companies, including Heckler & Koch, SigSaur, Glock and Grand Power, were asked to provide some samples and to be ready to tender. Accordingly, Frontex is looking for a total of 1,100 pistols with 9×19 mm calibre, lead-free ammunition, torches and corresponding holsters for the new border force.

The equipment is to be delivered to „several locations in the EU“. So far, however, a corresponding legal basis is still missing. The German Federal Ministry of the Interior wrote on Wednesday that the „Category 1“ weapons had not been delivered yet. However, Frontex „expects to be able to clarify the last open questions in this regard shortly“.

Autor: Matthias Monroy

Knowledge worker, activist, editor of the German civil rights journal Bürgerrechte & Polizei/CILIP.