May 11, 2023 Facebook Twitter LinkedIn

Dr. Benjamin Muller, Associate Professor in Interdisciplinary Programs at King’s, is the recipient of a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Insight Grant for a collaborative study, Securing the Border with Data: Canada’s Expanding Digital Frontier.

Dr. Muller will carry out the three-year research study with principal investigator Dr. Philippe Frowd, Associate Professor in the School of Political Studies at the University of Ottawa, and co-investigator Dr. Can E. Mutlu, Associate Professor of Global Politics at Acadia University.

 “Canada is part of a global trend in terms of increased automation of the border,” Dr. Muller says.

Although the study will examine various ports of entry across the country, Dr. Muller says the busiest borders in Canada tend to be at airports. “We see less automation occurring at the land border,” he notes.    

Anyone who has recently travelled through Toronto’s Pearson International Airport may have noticed that they spent more time scanning their travel documents at automated kiosks than actually speaking with a border agent. 

“We’ll be looking at why those kiosks are there,” Dr. Muller says. “What are the policy drivers and interests that are making that happen, both domestically and globally? And what are the impacts?”

The Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) remains the federal law enforcement agency responsible for border guards, immigration enforcement, and customs services in Canada, but Dr. Muller says the increased use of digital technologies and datafication is changing how the border is managed.    

“For people who are non-white, non-binary, immigrating or seeking asylum, it can amplify the precarity they experience,” he says.   He adds that the datafication of the border also raises privacy concerns.

“Border control is a sphere that’s traditionally not very open to private enterprise,” Dr. Muller says. “Suddenly we have a lot of companies developing these technologies, and even managing them in some cases.”

“Within these automated kiosks, there are often forms of testing going on for the development of future technologies,” he notes. The public may not be aware of all the data that is being collected, or what it is being used for. “The level of transparency is incredibly low.”   

Dr. Muller and his co-investigators hope their study will raise public awareness of the issues. “Right now, it’s very easy for states to conceal what they’re doing. There is almost no public oversight at the border,” Dr. Muller says. “We hope to expose some of the ramifications of these digital technologies, particularly in regards to mobility rights and human rights.”

Dr. Muller and Dr. Frowd will present research related to the SSHRC funded study at the Datafication of Borders and Migration meeting, co-convened by the Canada Excellence Research Chair (CERC) in Migration and Integration at Toronto Metropolitan University, Tampere University and Utrecht University, held online and in person in Toronto on May 25.

With an interdisciplinary background in international relations theory and contemporary social and political thought, Dr. Muller’s research and publications cover issues ranging from contemporary aviation security and trusted traveler programs, to the increasing reliance on biometric technology and risk management in contemporary border security, to a critical security studies analysis of Hizballah.

Dr. Muller has consulted as an expert witness on a number of Canadian Parliamentary committees and served as a research collaborator and guest speaker to NATO / European Science Foundation initiatives, INTERPOL and the World Customs Organization.

At King's, he teaches courses on migration and borders in the Social Justice and Peace Studies Department and is Coordinator of the new interdisciplinary Minor in Migration and Border Studies. On behalf of the King’s University College Faculty Association, he currently serves as a Board Member of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations.