Doctoral dissertation

European Union border control relies increasingly on technology utilizing personal data

Pinja Lehtonen
Interacting face-to-face with border guards will soon be history in the European Union. Passengers move freely within the Schengen area, but surveillance of the area’s external borders is increasingly a matter of sophisticated technology and information sharing. Pinja Lehtonen’s doctoral dissertation studies the social, political and ethical facets of these emerging border control technologies.

Passenger volumes to and from the EU are increasing and the European Commission has advocated for automating border control to facilitate travel and enhance security. This approach relies on risk profiling. It uses large amounts of passenger data such as fingerprints, which are sensitive biometric identifiers. The stated aim is to speed up self-service border control for the masses and allow border control officials to concentrate on high-risk travellers.

The decisions on which kind of automated border control technology to acquire are made in the national parliaments. Lehtonen studies the subjective notions of parliamentarians and experts consulted in the decision-making processes at the national level. Her case study of four EU Member States concludes that it is the political affiliation of the participants rather than e.g. their nationality that characterizes the types of views they express. Left-wing politicians typically worry about the potential erosion of civil liberties, while right-wing politicians welcome technologically reinforced border control as an increase in security and efficacy. Eurosceptic politicians demand a return to organizing border control at the national level.

The participants agree on demanding accessibility for people with disabilities in the context of automated border control. Therefore, the dissertation also studies how people with disabilities should be considered when designing technological border control systems in the EU.

“A universal design concept should be adopted to ensure both equal rights and usability, which leads to efficacy,” Lehtonen says.

“Accessibility is feasible, especially if it is demanded when tenders to supply border control technology are called for and people with disabilities are involved in the design processes.”

Lehtonen’s dissertation moreover takes a stand on the more abstract issue of how International Relations as a field should research political agency. In practice, this means arguing for the potential of combining the main research methodology of the dissertation with a worldview based on quantum physics.

“Subjective agency has not been studied enough in the field of International Relations. This is lamentable, since politics would not exist without it,” says Lehtonen. Her dissertation argues for the potential in studying humans not as rational but rather as creative decision-makers.

The doctoral dissertation of Pinja Lehtonen (M.Soc.Sci) in the field of International Relations entitled The Technologization of European Union Border Control: Political Agency Steering Societally Significant Practices will be publicly examined in the Faculty of Management and Business at Tampere University at 12 o’clock on Tuesday 30 June 2020. The Opponent will be Professor Vicki Squire of the University of Warwick, United Kingdom. The Custos will be Professor Pami Aalto of the Faculty of Management and Business, Tampere University, Finland.

Because of the coronavirus, Tampere University’s dissertation defences are not organised as onsite events. However, it is possible to follow the public examinations via a remote connection.

The dissertation is available online at

Photo: Eino Ansio