Athens, Greece – “Let’s see something that looks really nice,” says Anastasios Salis, Head of Information and Communication Technology at the Greek Ministry of Migration and Asylum in Athens, before entering an airtight room that is locked behind two interlocking doors and only with an ID card and Fingerprint is accessible scan.
Behind these doors is the newly installed central monitoring room of the ministry.
The front wall is covered by a huge screen. More than a dozen rectangles and squares show images from three refugee camps that are already connected to the system.
Some show a basketball court in a refugee camp on the island of Samos. Another screen shows the playground and another shows the inside of one of the containers where people meet.
Lights suddenly flash red above him. A potential threat was identified in one of the camps. This “threat” was reported by Centaur, a high-tech security system piloted by the Greek Ministry of Migration and implemented in all of the country’s nearly 40 refugee camps.
Centaur contains cameras and motion sensors. It uses algorithms to automatically predict and flag threats like the presence of weapons, unauthorized vehicles, or unusual visits to restricted areas.
The system then alerts the responsible authorities such as the police, fire brigade and private security guards in the camps.
From the control room, the operators deploy camera-equipped drones and instruct the officers stationed in the camp to rush to the location of the reported threat.
The officers carry smartphones with software that enables them to communicate with the control center.
Once they have determined the type and severity of the threat, the control room takes them to the site to resolve the incident.
Video recordings and other data collected during the mission can then be saved in the system under an “event card”.
This particular incident is merely a simulation presented to Al Jazeera during an exclusive tour and preview of the Centaur system.
According to Greek officials, the aim of the program is to ensure the safety of those living in the camps and in the surrounding communities.
“We are using technology to prevent violence, to prevent events like the one in Moria – the arson of the camp. Because security is crucial for everyone, “Notis Mitarachi, the Greek migration minister, told Al Jazeera at the inauguration of a new EU-funded,” closed-loop control “refugee camp on the island of Kos, one of the first to join the Centaur system became .
“Dystopian” surveillance project
Almost 40 cameras are installed in each warehouse and can be operated from the control room.
There will also be thermal cameras, drones, and other technologies – including augmented reality glasses that will be distributed to police and private security personnel.
“This was not to monitor or violate people’s privacy [in the camps]“Said Salis, one of Centaur’s architects. “You don’t monitor them. They try to prevent bad things from happening. “
The Greek authorities are calling this new surveillance a form of security, but civil society groups and European lawmakers have criticized the move.
“This fits in with a broader trend in the EU to pour public money into dystopian and experimental surveillance projects that treat people like laboratory rats,” Ella Jakubowska, policy and campaign officer at European Digital Rights (EDRi), told Al Jazeera. “Money that could be used to help people is instead used to punish them while the surveillance industry makes huge profits selling false promises of magical technology that claims to solve complex structural problems.”
Recent news reporting that Centaur is partially funded by the EU’s COVID-19 Recovery Fund has prompted a group of European lawmakers to reach out to the European Commission with their implementation concerns.
Homo Digitalis, a Greek digital rights advocacy group, and EDRi said they had made several inquiries about the privacy assessments that were carried out prior to Centaur’s development and launch.
Such an analysis is required in accordance with the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). You also asked what data is collected and how long it is kept by the authorities. These questions went unanswered.
The Greek Ministry of Migration did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request on whether an impact assessment had been completed or on data retention and processing policies relating to children.
Mixed feelings on Samos
Lawyers in Samos told Al Jazeera they had raised concerns that the camp’s residents were being adequately informed of the presence of these technologies.
But Salis from the control center said this was achieved through “signs – many signs” in the camps.
The system does not currently contain facial recognition technology, at least “not yet,” said Leonidas Petavrakis, a specialist in digital software at ESA Security Solutions SA, one of the companies commissioned for the Centaur project.
The possible use of facial recognition is “a big concern” in this context, said Konstantinos Kakavoulis from Homo Digitalis.
Facial recognition systems often misidentify people with color and studies have shown that they can lead to unlawful arrests and convictions. Human rights organizations around the world have called for their use to be restricted or prohibited.
Critics claim that an EU proposal to regulate artificial intelligence presented by the EU Commission in April does not go far enough to prevent the misuse of AI systems.
For some of those who live under the light of this EU-funded surveillance system, the mood is mixed.
Mohammed, a 25-year-old refugee from Palestine who lives in the new Samos camp, said he didn’t always mind the cameras because he thought they could prevent fights that often broke out in the former Samos camp.
“Sometimes it is [a] a good feeling because it makes you feel safe, sometimes not, ”he said, but added that the feeling of security comes at a price.
“There’s not much difference between this camp and a prison.”