From Tijuana with Love: Hacking Physical Borders

Tijuana, August 2001: a young man sits at the Mexico–United States border, hacking on his Clamshell iBook. His name is Fran Illich and he is the initiator of Borderhack, a festival for hacktivists and border activists. He explains: electronic communication is designed to transgress physical borders. And yet, those camped beneath the metal fence jutting deep into the Pacific Ocean know all too well: a borderless life is unavailable to many. Indeed, during the festival the year before, the activists witnessed a group of immigrants physically hacking the border by jumping the fence, and getting caught by U.S. Border Patrol soon after. To this day, many risk their lives trying to get to the other side.

Border camps began in Europe in the late 90s, as part of a broader No Border network. Activists would gather offline and online to stage virtual sit-ins on government websites using the “FloodNet” software designed by the Electronic Disturbance Theatre (EDT) in 1998 to support the Zapatistas fighting for the rights of indigenous people and autonomy in Chiapas, Mexico. The tool allowed users to collectively send automated requests to a remote web server, effectively bringing it down. This early form of denial-of-service (DOS) attack combined political tactics with hacking practices. The Borderhack Manifesto describes hacking as the penetration, exploration, or investigation of a system with the goal of understanding it. And this is precisely what the activists did with the US-Mexico border: they hacked at it.

Inspired by the border hack in Mexico, Hackitectura, a group of young architects, artists and activists began to explore and visually map the border between Morocco and Spain, thereby rendering visible centuries-old migration patterns along the Strait of Gibraltar. As part of the Fadaiat-project, Hackitectura set up a temporary civilian Wifi-link between Africa and Europe in 2004 to investigate the deep interwovenness of these two regions. Similar to their Mexican comrades, the Spanish activists were interested in exploring, documenting, and prodding contradictory regimes of (im)mobility and the privileges of movement in the light of globalization.

Today’s migrants, who are literally operating at the fringe of border regimes, deploy a range of borderhacking techniques—physically as well as virtually. Moreover, lifesaving missions, like those undertaken by Sea-Watch and Lifeline in the Mediterranean, use civilian-operated drones and satellites to provide critical real-time data to detect vessels and document human rights violations – a critical practice given the increasing militarization and securitization of borders. These new forms of documentation and visualization are building upon hacktivist practices: they analyze, explore, and investigate border regimes, with the goal of overcoming both physical borders and the mental barriers between people on both sides of the frontier.

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