The Terms and Conditions of Border-Crossings

Updated: Aug 29

Originally published at
To sign off on; phrasal verb meaning “to give one’s approval to something.”

We all sign things nowadays, but not all of us get to sign off on things. The use of a signature as a way to grant approval is not the same as the more commonplace practice of signing things like “terms and conditions”. This distinction ought to me made because in identifying when a signature is not empowering or representative of consent, we can look for alternative tools of resistance against the established order which uses signatures to control and subjugate disenfranchised segments of the population.

Signatures earn significance through institutions of Power, governments which establish order and have the resources to enforce this order. In any hierarchical structure, signing off on something is indicative of status, as is the ability to make someone sign an unfavorable agreement.

A good example of this is our routine practice of downloading apps into our smartphones. Apple, for instance, signs off on the apps it allows on its app store, but the terms and conditions we agree to when we download them are certainly unfavorable to us as consumers. During the covid pandemic, a “privacy nutrition label” was introduced to apps in the store, supposedly simplifying access consumers have to the content of these conditions.

The labels are probably a result of the GDPR, which Apple cites in its page detailing Privacy Policies, and requires not only transparency over these policies but also for this information to be presented in a format which people can easily understand. Unfortunately, these “nutrition labels” are neither effective nor accurate, exacerbating the issue of unfavorable agreements we consent to through digital signatures.

Earlier in 2022, in the wake of abortion bans in the United States, women encouraged each other to remove period-tracking apps from their phones for fear of potential privacy breeches and legal backlash. This is a way of not signing, not consenting, to personal data sharing. It is also a form of general strike, provoking a sharp turn in the industry. But this is a privileged position to be in—to be able to delete something from your smartphone.

Example of a “privacy nutrition label” from an App which creates collages for Instagram.
Example of a “privacy nutrition label” from an App which creates collages for Instagram.

Nearly a quarter of a million immigrants in the United States are tracked by ICE with the use of an app officials describe as more “humane” than ankle bracelets or incarceration. Unsurprisingly, many do not agree with this description, which is why there is an ongoing court case against the Department of Homeland Security, claiming a violation of the Freedom of Information Act and concern over the “drastic increase in the Intensive Supervision Appearance Program (ISAP)”. This program embodies how, nowadays, privacy policies of applications can quite literally become prisons.

In Europe, due to the 2015 “refugee crisis”, data monitoring was considered by government institutions as a tool for predicting the “movements of migrants into Europe”. The European Space Agency pitched several EU organizations, including Frontex, on “commercially viable “disruptive smart technologies””. In a report from 2019 on this subject, the ethical and practical limitations of this practice were considered, but no guarantee is given that this tool hasn’t been or isn’t being used.

Even though the report acknowledges that users of this technology practice racial profiling—which they describe as an “overfocus on African countries”—and that machine-learning reliant on unpredictable data produces unreliable results, the conclusion describes this method as a “nascent workstream”. In other words, if this deeply flawed and unethical method of handling humanitarian crises isn’t yet widespread, it surely is about to become.

Agreeing to dangerous terms and conditions of applications which track movement and seek to predict future movements of people like you infringes upon freedoms of whole segments of the world population. But there are even more profound existential threats to migrants upon arrival in Europe.



The criteria used by those with the power to sign off on these requests are kept from the segment of the public with the most stake in these immigration policies: asylum seekers. It could be said that it’s in the interest of EU countries to have asylum seekers oblivious to the inner workings of its institutions and their decision-making processes. These government branches may not want asylum seekers to have information which can help them present their case more effectively. This is exemplified in the 2014 court case YS and others, where incoherent justifications were used to deny migrants the right to access personal data, a right protected by European privacy laws. In some instances, it was claimed that the right to privacy of government staff and their line of reasoning trumps the plaintiffs’.

Meanwhile, when an asylum request is approved, the migrant is required to sign contracts which, among other things, subject them to compulsory “civic training”. The French Office for Immigration and Integration (OFII) calls this the “Republican Integration Contract” (CIR), where “newly arrived foreigners” are taught “the principles [and] values [...] of the Republic, the rights and duties associated with life in France and the organization of French Society”. The granting of the immigration request comes attached to the requirement to resign certain aspects of your cultural identity. Namely, robust integration efforts are not only about inserting immigrants into the workforce, but also a “shield against radicalization”—an umbrella term for extreme cultural differences.

The Netherlands has a similar program, where “knowledge of the Dutch society” is mixed in with Dutch language skills. They go even further, in requiring “voluntary” work in businesses, and requiring health insurance from companies which refuse to provide information in any language other than Dutch. I have gone through this process—twice or three times a week I “volunteered” vacuuming a video store; learned about ‘black pete’ (but not about the country’s colonial history); and had to sign up and pay for health services I couldn’t use, because workers refused to give me information in English over the phone.

In Brazil, a parallel can be made with the integration efforts of Venezuelan refuges. In official reports, there is no mention of civic training and values, instead, there is mention of opportunities for certification and work. The UNHCR report from 2021 describes Venezuelan refugees in Brazil to be more likely to have completed stages of education, but they earn less and work more hours than their Brazilian counterparts. There is no compulsory integration program.

What I take from this approach to dealing with migration is that people in Western countries are somewhat afraid that people from elsewhere will do to them what they did to these other parts of the world—show up uninvited and impose their customs on locals. There is an active effort to demoralize, to humiliate not just any immigrant, but those from countries the West has dominated and continues to dominate to this day. New technologies are not being developed to liberate, they are being developed in large part to extend and strengthen already-existing power structures.

Considering that today it’s nearly impossible to not produce data (from the day we are born, documents and data are collected and stored about us), what can we do to disrupt data processing strategies, ensure a certain level of privacy, and allow for freedom of movement? Deleting period-tracking apps is one thing, but sometimes I think increasing data input, and decreasing its predictability can also be useful. Machine learning and algorithms cannot be effective in predicting human behavior, especially when us humans resist the efforts being put towards turning us into machines. Encouraging difference, uniqueness, can be a radical thing, because the pressure to “integrate” is more than a de-radicalization tool, it’s an effort to predict and control our behaviors, even the most intimate ones.


MIRNA WABI-SABI is a writer, editor and translator. She is founder and editor-in-chief of the Plataforma9 initiative, author of the bilingual pocket book Anarcho-Transcreation, and site editor of Gods and Radicals.