This is how Frontex will monitor migrants from space

By Andrea Palladino, first published in Domani

Anyone carrying a cell phone in the Mediterranean may soon be under surveillance by the European agency, Frontex. This information will also be shared with the Libyan Coast Guard. 

Grainy photographs, a set of gray dots, three lighter stripes on a dark background with blurred shapes: they were Chinese rubber dinghies loaded with migrants having departed a few hours earlier from the Libyan coast- 370 people. Among them, nine children and four pregnant women. On October 10, 2015, Frontex announced, with great fanfare, the latest rescue in the central Mediterranean in coordination with the Italian authorities. It was not one of many routine operations: those vessels had been identified by analyzing satellite images scanning the waters between Libya and Italy. An unstoppable flow of data, images and coordinates entering the Eurosur Fusion Service platform was proudly announced to be a life-saving technology by the European border control agency.

Six years have passed. The strategy has already changed. The political and operational objectives are different now. The Libyan Coast Guard operates in those waters with a single rule of engagement: bring all shipwrecked migrants back to detention centers. It operates with money, equipment and technology kindly provided by Brussels and Rome. But above all, it operates with  valuable information that comes directly from the sky. Being very similar to the very powerful U.S. spy agency specializing in “sigint” or signals intelligence, it is a real NSA of the Mediterranean. Every second, this enormous amount of information, including interceptions, scanning of radio waves, high-precision photographs, eavesdropping on telephone conversations, GPS positioning, tracking of routes with millimetric precision, enters the “Fusion service” system managed by Frontex which is capable of generating intelligence reports.  Saving migrants is no longer the objective. This big eye on the Mediterranean is the long hand of Europe that is able, silently, to reject those who try to escape from Libya.


The partnership – The NSA of the Mediterranean operates mainly thanks to the collaboration with the military and security industry. Large companies specializing in intelligence have found a gold mine in the management of data to be provided to states committed to locking down borders. 

They’re aiming for space, asking for a ride for their satellites on billionaires Bezos’ and Musk’s missiles. They have a huge business in mind: “surveillance as a service” or rather,  the selling of data collected by spying from space. Data would be sold not only to states, but also to private individuals if they are willing to pay. 

In 2019, Frontex signed a contract for a pilot surveillance project in the Mediterranean with US-based HawkEye360. According to documentation published in the official European Gazette, the requested service involves “the interception of radio waves emitted by maritime radars, Ais transponders, satellite phones and, potentially of other assets, with geolocation of the equipment.” 

The no-bid contract was awarded directly for 1.5 million Euros. According to information available on the company’s website, HawkEye360 is financed by Advance which specializes in media and  technology, by Airbus, the aerospace company, by Esri, the international data analysis group, and by other holding companies active in cybersecurity, the space industry and intelligence services (Raytheon, Razor’s Edge, Night Dragon, Sumitomo, Space Angels and Shield).  In early July, HawkEye360 completed the launch of the last microsatellites specialized in radio frequency interception and currently has a network of 20 active satellites.

In the American company’s promotional video of its radio signal interception systems, it is possible to see the targets. In addition to maritime VHF channels and radar emissions, the satellites are able to scan the L band, that is the radio frequencies used by cell phones, satellites and the Galileo positioning system. Basically, all devices that emit waves can be monitored. “For example, according to a report published at the end of July by the American NGO Privacy International, the data would allow Frontex to track ships in the Mediterranean or potentially people in motion using satellite phones. In essence, anyone carrying a cell phone in the Mediterranean would be tracked. Frontex, responding to a request for further information from Privacy International, states that the system is currently only in a “pilot project” phase and that the agency “is not intercepting any communication.” However, the entire project is subject to secrecy constraints.  The European agency wrote to Privacy International stating, “Revealing information about the technologies used in the operational area by Frontex and member states  (…) could benefit criminal networks.”

Shared information – The information entering the Eurosur platform used by Frontex to monitor the Mediterranean is shared not only with EU member countries. The system’s regulations also provide for access by North African countries, including Libya. As previously stated, the European Border Agency provides valuable information to the Coast Guard in Tripoli to locate boats carrying migrants. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The 2019 Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights report revealed how “information collected by aircraft, drones and satellites from member states and EU agencies is shared with all relevant authorities, including those in Libya.” Valuable data for the Coast Guards in Tripoli, “this information appears to be particularly conducive to further interception and deportation by the Libyan Coast Guard to unsafe ports which is against international maritime law and human rights,” the Council of Europe report explained.

This time, aid for Libya’s efforts to push-back migrants comes directly from space.