We find ourselves living in a society where increasingly our actions and our right to freedom of cross-border movements – or lack thereof – are being constantly monitored, both physically and digitally. But as we enter the surveillance age, forms of digital civil disobedience are fighting to go beyond these new borders and to protect our scrutinised values and movements, and our right to privacy.

Hacking the border

Ricardo Dominguez is probably the world’s only person to have hacked a border. Besides being Professor of New Media, Performance Art, and a Principal Investigator for CALIT2 at the University of California in San Diego, he specialises in electronic disturbance as an art form. In the early 1990s, Dominguez and his companions considered the rise of the Internet and the coming-into-being of virtual information systems as a new space for protest. Traditional loci for contestation such as the streets rapidly became ‘dead capital.’ As he explained in an interview, the concept of electronic civil disobedience ‘emerged in our dialogue as a way to imagine a new space of contestation and reimagine new forms of civil disobedience.’ One of the actions he deployed was a Denial-of-Service (DoS) attack on the Pentagon in 1998. In 2001, Lufthansa was paid a digital visit for supporting deportations by the German state. Another action was a digital sit-in in 2005 on the website of The Minutemen, the U.S. vigilantes that ‘help’ their government to protect the border from illegal trespassing.

Dominguez himself once declared he disliked the term ‘hactivism’ regardless of the fact this label has been used widely to typify his work. He prefers the term ‘electronic civil disobedience’ because it ‘offers a deep link to historical Civil Disobedience and has less to do with the use of contemporary technological dynamics.’ Indeed, Dominguez’ digital engagement goes well beyond activism on information networks. In combination with the contestation of virtual cultures of control — to ‘rip into the electronic fabric’ as he calls it — his initiatives also offer care. The ‘transborder immigrant tool’ for instance is a device that runs on a cell phone and directs migrants, who have crossed the US-Mexican border and who are on their journey in the grim desert, to water stations and shady places. The tool, however, is not completely disconnected from critique of technological systems. Using a cell phone device for humanitarian causes in California is also a clear wink to the state’s ‘wired’ culture.

Dominguez’ work reveals two interesting aspects with regard to borders. Firstly, it demonstrates the technological nature of today’s borders by contesting servers and using cell phones. Secondly, it shows how information technologies can also be applied to recapture a space for contestation and to create a public narrative on those borders. ‘Hacking the border’ in this regard does not refer to simply any attempt to illegally cross a border or to disturb the control over the border. If so, smugglers would be the main hackers at work. Rather, ‘hacking the border’ is better understood as those initiatives that aim to contest borders and border controls for a specific reason by bringing forth a certain moral or political claim about those borders and the consequences they have.

Re-bordering after the ‘fall of the wall’

Borders are fascinating entities for anybody interested in the relationship between people, their habitats and the means they use to demarcate their areas. Borders allow for the study of all kinds of tensions that arise between citizens, states and technologies when mobility is subjected to some form of control.

Today’s border management is of a specific kind. Since the end of the Cold War and the ‘fall of the wall’ a process of global re-bordering has taken place. Particularly in Europe, this process is often said to be two-sided. On the one hand, the Schengen treaty has created an open European space for free movement of people, goods, capital and information. Whilst on the other, the European Union has fortified its external borders and intensified its control. Together, they constitute Europe as a political, economic and technological constellation.

However, it would be a mistake to regard what happens on the inside and what arises on the outside as opposites. Borders are often wrongly depicted as fences, walls or other boundaries that aim to stop people. Although preventing people from entering may be one of the goals, ‘stopping’ people is not the main rationale behind borders. Borders are better understood as selection mechanisms. They prevent some people, goods, capital and information from entering whilst stimulating the circulation of others. Borders are a sorting device, a form of sieve that classifies people, deciding their right to move — or not.

The post-Cold War process of re-bordering specifically concerns both the introduction and application of ever more refined selection tools. People that are regarded as so-called ‘trusted-travellers’ usually face ‘smart borders’ rigged with all the automated border control technologies currently in use: body scanners, baggage control, iris scans, visa checks and identity controls. Others, such as those circumscribed as ‘irregular migrants’ who aim to enter Europe by crossing the Mediterranean without either passports or visas see very different technologies. Travelling to Europe from Syria, Eritrea, Afghanistan or Iraq through Libya or via the islands of Italy (Lampedusa, Sicily) or Greece (predominantly the Aegean islands such as Lesbos and Chios), supported by smugglers and with the help of innovative financial transaction systems they will be registered by radars, heat camera’s and last but not least, human eyes using binoculars.

In short, people encounter various technological borders in different ways. They are subjected to different procedures and classified in different categories. Many of today’s mechanisms that decide over people’s inclusion or exclusion take place from behind the screen. Information about people, their fingerprints, identities, visas, and languages, are gathered together and combined into a single profile. Key to the re-bordering process is the fact that these technological borders do not fully overlap with either physical boundaries or demarcations between states. To a certain extent, ‘the border is everywhere’.[1] Initiatives that aim to contest border control or mobility policies in general therefore follow information streams in search of the nodes that form the new centres of today’s borders.

Contesting technological borders

The electronic disturbances of Dominguez are fascinating not least because they point towards the technological nature of many of today’s border surveillance systems. Hacking the border in this sense comes close to what the political theorist Torin Monahan has called ‘counter-surveillance’.[2] He defined counter-surveillance as ‘intentional, tactical uses, or disruptions of surveillance technologies to challenge institutional power asymmetries.’[3] He explained that such activities can include: disabling or destroying surveillance cameras; mapping paths of least surveillance and disseminating that information over the Internet; employing video cameras to monitor sanctioned surveillance systems and their personnel; or staging public plays to draw attention to the prevalence of surveillance in society.[4]

Monahan has investigated interventions in both the technical and social faces of public surveillance such as those of the Institute of Applied Autonomy (IAA), a collective of technicians, artists, and activists engaged in projects in ‘productive disruption and collective empowerment’ and of the group trademark which advocates a more radical and direct approach—namely destroying cameras. In addition, he has analysed Steve Mann’s Shooting Back project, which utilises high-tech devices to take video footage of security personnel, and the Surveillance Camera Players (SCP), a New York based, acting group.[5]

What are these activists attempting to expose? What is the issue they aim to address? Monahan himself was not entirely convinced these actions succeed in bringing forth a larger claim about the nature of surveillance systems. According to him ‘current modes of activism tend to individualise surveillance problems and methods of resistance, leaving the institutions, policies, and cultural assumptions that support public surveillance relatively insulated from attack.’[6]

Dominguez’ actions also run the risk of individualising surveillance problems. Yet on the other hand it is the consequent and almost programmatic strategy of Dominguez and his partners to apply these technologies to themselves in order to arrive at a kind of reflexive and disturbing narrative that tells us something about the stuff today’s borders are made of.

Although Europe does not have an equivalent of Ricardo Dominguez (yet), there are many initiatives that subscribe to the same goals: the deployment of information technologies, the cooperation of states with private and professional parties, and the increasing focus on the human body that, taken together, not only affect the nature of border control, but also the checks and balances of democracies and the nature of the public sphere as well. As a result, NGOs, artists, activists and academics increasingly deploy all kinds of digital means to contest border control policies and the information given by states.[7]

The ‘hot spot’ in this case is undeniably the Mediterranean Sea. According to the UN, the Mediterranean has become the deadliest stretch of water in the world for migrants and refugees. Every year, hundreds of people lose their lives trying to reach Europe. According to some, there is a direct link between the fortification or even militarisation of Europe’s external borders and the number of casualties among migrants. Human rights lawyer Thomas Spijkerboer has stated that:

Intensifying the EU’s external borders has . . . led irregular migrants to use alternative, and increasingly dangerous, routes. . . . There are strong reasons to believe that increased controls have led to the loss of more lives, and, given this, it is foreseeable that further tightening of the external borders, as envisaged by the Member States and the EU, will intensify this trend.[8]

One way to contest policies is to provide the public with a list of casualties. The aim of this is not only to register the reported death toll. These lists also have the effect of contesting the claims made by national and European authorities and of creating awareness by naming the victims instead of allowing them to remain anonymous. One famous list is that published by the NGO UNITED.

The information offered by a list has the potential of being put into motion. A tactic that is deployed by several watchdogs is counter-mapping, i.e. providing the public with information by visualising the migration drama geographically, and by countering the facts provided by governments to justify their actions to the public. Examples are the visual representation of migration routes and refugee camps and the launch of interactive websites that invite the public to report casualties. Something similar is done by UNITED. A map constructed by them (6 May 2009) shows where, how, and how many people lost their lives between 1993 and 2009.

An example of a different kind of mapping is realised through a combination of the geographical map and the list mentioned above. Watch The Med is an online mapping platform that monitors the deaths and violations of migrants’ rights at the maritime borders of the EU. An interactive website invites people to report casualties and to participate in making details of the victims and the location of their deaths publicly available.

Something similar is to be found on the Deaths at the Border Database launched May 2015. The website hosts a database with ‘the first collection of official, state-produced evidence on people who died while attempting to reach southern EU countries from the Balkans, the Middle East, and North & West Africa, and whose bodies were found in or brought to Europe.’ By implication, the number of deaths reported here is much lower than mentioned at websites were estimations are made or other sources are combined as well.

A refined example of counter-surveillance, combining academic, activist and artistic approaches, is part of the ‘forensic architecture’ project at Goldsmiths, University of London. Of special importance is their analysis of the so-called ‘left-to-die-boat’, a tragic case in which 63 migrants lost their lives while drifting for fourteen days within the NATO maritime surveillance area. According to the researchers’ report:

In the case of what is now referred to as the ‘left-to-die boat,’ 72 migrants fleeing Tripoli by boat on the early morning of 27 March 2011 ran out of fuel and were left to drift for 14 days until they landed back on the Libyan coast. With no water or food on-board, only nine of the migrants survived.[9]

Crucial to this project was the fact that, in several interviews, these survivors recounted the various points of contact they had with the external world during the ordeal. By reconstructing the chain of events, the initiative aimed to visualise the information infrastructure that was present at the Mediterranean at the time specifically in order to re-allocate agency and accountability to various actors that had crucial information at their disposal.

The politics of visibility and invisibility

The aforementioned initiatives relate to a certain interplay between visibility and invisibility. As the political geographer Louise Amoore has stated, homeland security in general and border control in particular is not ‘primarily a way of seeing or surveilling the world, but rather a means of dividing, isolating, annexing in order to visualise what is “unknown.”’[10] According to her, such interventions, when aimed at counter-surveillance, have the capacity to call the idea of the ‘norm’ into question. This is what art historian Jonathan Crary, has called ‘experimental activity’ that ‘involves the creation of unanticipated spaces and environments in which our visual and intellectual habits are challenged and disrupted.’[11]

What is at stake is a certain ‘politics of invisibility’.[12] However, the invisibility at work here not only arises through the actions of states to cover up the consequences of their border controls. As media theorist Esther Peeren has clarified, invisibility comes in different kinds.[13] Firstly, invisibility can be understood as that which is not yet visible. Surveillance in this case is mainly aimed at monitoring, registering and mapping in order to record all kinds of data on subjects that are to be found on the surface. Secondly, there is what the philosopher Jacques Derrida has called the visible invisible, ‘an invisible order of the visible that I can keep in secret by keeping it out of sight.’[14] This notion ‘refers to something that would be visible if it were out in the open but remains unseen because it is covered up or camouflaged.’[15] Contrary to the first category, the invisible here is not on the surface but hiding underground. Thirdly, invisibility takes the shape of the avisual, as for instance the kind of invisibility at stake in Ralph Ellison’s novel The Invisible Man. According to Peeren, ‘what causes the avisual to be disavowed is its excessive visibility, an overwhelming or threatening materiality that the eyes cannot or do not want to take in – a blinding sight.’[16] A typical case of this form of invisibility are the irregular migrants who stay in Europe illegally yet participate in all parts of daily life.

Thus, both visibility and invisibility are manifest in differing ways. Further, not everything is made visible in the same way. Instead, it is the underlying aims, intentions, the networks in which representations circulate and the organisation of perspective, that determine how certain aspects of any given situation are perceived.

Vision and action

The question that arises from the forgoing is: what kind of politics is at stake in the interplay between the visible and the invisible in surveillance and counter-surveillance and how does this relate to certain actions? An answer to this question can be brought one step closer with the help of philosopher Jacques Rancière and his notion of the ‘distribution of the sensible.’ Combining theory of art with political theory and elaborating on the idea of ‘representation’ in both politics and aesthetics, Rancière has composed a political theory that is strongly rooted in the tension between the visible and the invisible, on what is represented and what remains foreclosed in certain political orders. According to Rancière, politics comes into being once a given order of things is being contested. In his essay The Paradox of Political Art (2010) Rancière formulated a definition of politics that can be applied well to the innately political interplay between the visible and the invisible in the context of border control and surveillance policies and the protests they receive:

Politics invents new forms of collective enunciation; it re-frames the given by inventing new ways of making sense of the sensible, new configurations between the visible and the invisible, and between the audible and the inaudible, new distributions of space and time.[17]

What becomes visible in such configurations is what Rancière famously called ‘the part that has no part’ in which something that was left out of the existing political order returns with a vengeance.[18]

Taking into account the previous remarks about space, place, and perspective, it is crucial to emphasise at this point that the ‘seeing’ that is involved with these configurations always works from a certain point of view and is inevitably embedded in material circumstances. As the philosopher Bruno Latour has stressed in his Paris: Invisible City (2006), the social and technological organisation of a city is only to be understood from inside out. The planning and daily working of large infrastructures such as underground metro’s and surface traffic flow depends on meticulous and refined interventions by all kinds of human and nonhuman actors that relate the ‘macro’ to the ‘micro’ scale and vice versa. Consequently, any map of social life has to consider two things: Firstly, ‘social’ activities alone do not shape our lives. Cities, like all living spaces, consist of multifarious technologies all of which structure and connect activities. Secondly, the resulting socio-technical networks that relate human and nonhuman interaction are not to be considered as large-scale infrastructures. Rather, they are to be regarded as chains of association in which relations are constructed, information is circulated and connections are made.

In the opening lines of his book, Latour declared ‘we often tend to contrast real and virtual, hard urban reality and electronic utopias.’ The book aims to show that real cities consist of many and varied networks in which information is gathered together and circulated so as to connect the streets to the maps, and the maps to the control centres. As a result, ‘no single control panel or synoptic board brings all these flows together in a single place at any one time.’ Latour further states:

No bird’s eye view could, at a single glance, capture the multiplicity of these places . . . There are no more panopticons than panoramas; only richly colored dioramas with multiple connections, criss-crossing wires under roads and pavements, along tunnels in the metro, on the roofs of sewers . . . The total view is also, literally, the view from nowhere.[19]

This absence of a bird’s eye view has important socio-theoretical and political consequences. One implication is that every perspective will have to be constructed since there is no ‘natural’ oversight position available. Another implication is that because of this fundamental lack of ‘a view from above’ no map or oversight can claim to be complete, or indeed justified by a supposedly ‘all-seeing’ position. Contrary to popular ‘panoptic’ notions, contemporary surveillance does not take place from a central point of view. Instead, surveillance consists of the combination of all kinds of local and regional networks by way of ‘interoperability’ in which information is circulated and carefully reconstructed into representations that create ‘situational awareness’ and call—or do not call—for action. Conversely, counter-surveillance can be regarded as pointing precisely at these dispersed and mediated structures of border surveillance.


Debates in the public sphere increasingly take place in a visual and often technologically mediated way. Initiatives that contest border controls and mobility policies are realised through decentralised means, such as through media coverage, internet forums, social media, and NGOs that act as mediators in the public sphere between states and citizens. Intriguingly, these initiatives not only question surveillance, but conceptualise it as a specific way of representing reality as well.

As I have argued elsewhere this battle between representation and counter-representation is not a contest in which competing images of reality are brought forward.[20] Counter-surveillance is concerned with opening-up critical events related to international mobility and border passage. In a way similar to state surveillance, it lacks any unique, omniscient point of view. Instead, surveillance and counter-surveillance relate certain practices and certain kinds of information to one another to create a specific image of these events. This image is not to be understood as a direct representation or a picture of reality. Rather, these visualisations can be seen as consisting of technologically mediated ‘lines of sight’ that combine certain elements, whilst leaving others out.[21]

The political dimension of ‘hacking the border’ may be said to consist of its capacity to emphasise the distributed nature of border control and surveillance policies. Whereas the state connects and relates various sorts of information from highly different technologies so as to visualize risks; counter-surveillance aims to reconstruct these scattered images by re-uniting them in different ways so as to relate causes to consequential agency and to reattribute institutional responsibility. The power-controlling element of counter-surveillance mainly lies in its potential to unveil the mediated nature of border surveillance and question it by articulating the institutional and ethical voids it creates, thus revealing the nature of what is termed ‘re-bordering.’ Moreover, these initiatives have something significant to say about how the public space for protest is taken up in the interplay of visibility versus invisibility and the mediation of events by visual means. As such, visual initiatives to contest borders and to discuss their legitimacy have as much to say about the current state of borders as they do about how we might understand the nature of politics in a technological society.


This article was orginally published in Hacking Habitat: Art, Technology and Social Change – Ine Gevers (Niet Normal Foundation, NAI010 Publishers 2016).



[1] D. Lyon, ‘The Border Is Everywhere: ID Cards, Surveillance and the Other’, in: Zureik, E. and M. Salter (eds.), Global Surveillance and Policing. Borders, Security, Identity (Collumpton: Willan Publishing, 2005).

[2] T. Monahan, ‘Counter-surveillance as Political Intervention?’, Social Semiotics (2006) vol. 16, no. 4, 515-534, 516.

[3] Ibid. 516.

[4] Ibid., 515.

[5] H. Dijstelbloem, ‘Mediating the Mediterranean: Surveillance and Counter-Surveillance at the Southern Borders of Europe’, in: Y. Jansen, R. Celikates and J. De Bloois, The Irregularisation of Migration in Contemporary Europe: Detention, Deportation, Drowning (London and New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015).

[6] T. Monahan, ‘Counter-surveillance as Political Intervention?’, Social Semiotics (2006) vol. 16, no. 4, 515-534, 516.

[7] The examples mentioned in this section are based on Dijstelbloem, ‘Mediating the Mediterranean’, op. cit. (endnote 5).

[8] T. Spijkerboer, ‘The human costs of border control’, European Journal of Migration and Law (2006) vol. 9, 127.

[9] C. Heller, L. Pezzani and Situ Studio, ‘Report on the “Left-to-Die-Boat”’ (London: Forensic Architecture Project Goldsmiths University of London, 11 April 2012), 9.

[10] L. Amoore, ‘Lines of Sight: On the Visualization of Unknown Futures’, Citizenship Studies (2009) vol. 13, no. 1, 17-30.

[11] J. Carry, Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999), 7.

[12] O. Kuchinskaya, The Politics of Invisibility: Public Knowledge about Radiation Health Effects after Chernobyl (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2014).

[13] E. Peeren, ‘Refocalizing Irregular Migration: New Perspectives on the Global Mobility Regime in Contemporary Visual Culture’, in: Y. Jansen, R. Celikates and J. De Bloois, The Irregularization of Migration in Contemporary Europe, op. cit. (endnote 5), 176-177.

[14] J. Derrida, The Gift of Death (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).

[15] E. Peeren, ‘Refocalizing’, op. cit. (endnote 16), 177.

[16] Ibid., 177.

[17] J. Rancière, Dissensus. On Politics and Aesthetics (London: Bloomsbury, 2010), 139.

[18] Ibid., 70.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Dijstelbloem, ‘Mediating the Mediterranean’, op. cit. (endnote 5).

[21] L. Amoore, ‘Lines’, op. cit. (endnote 13); J. Crary, Suspensions, op. cit. (endnote 14).

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