Brexit will push UK borders to the brink... unless we get smarter with data
This piece originally appeared in the May/June 2019 issue of Border Security Report.
One of the biggest issues posed by Brexit is the impact that it will have on the UK’s borders. While the most well-documented concern is of course the lack of consensus over the Irish backstop, a more fundamental crisis looms once we actually leave the EU. The organisations controlling our borders, already stretched under layers of legacy systems, are about to be pushed to the brink as the amount of time it takes to process EU nationals and goods rises exponentially.
To meet this challenge, the government is already diverting considerable funds towards boosting manpower, infrastructure and technology at our borders. Rightly so - if we are to cope with the changes to come, we need to revisit and revitalise the country’s border and customs infrastructure. However, arguably the most cost-effective way of doing this is to adopt a new approach, with data-sharing at its heart.
To give you an idea of the challenge we face, when Brexit finally happens, a country that’s spent four and a half decades within the EU must figure out how to handle a tripling in border crossings. Currently, around two thirds of the 36 million people who visit UK shores every year come from EU countries. In an instant, these 27 countries will effectively become foreign nations, with their 440 million citizens turning into foreigners. All will become subject to customs and immigration requirements as they cross UK land, sea and air borders, and will have to be processed just like citizens from the rest of the world are today. This huge increase in the numbers requiring visa and security checks will almost certainly slow down the process for everyone. Currently, UK Border Force officers strive to admit EU nationals into the country in under 25 minutes and for non-EU nationals, the target rises to 45 minutes. In all likelihood, processing times will increase to more than 45 minutes for all visitors in the future unless something is changed.
Similar delays can be expected to slow down the movement of goods, which currently move freely across the border between the UK and the rest of the EU, but which will soon become goods imported from abroad, subject to all of the tariffs, customs declarations and paperwork that comes with this. Indeed, while border crossings are ‘only’ expected to triple after Brexit, customs declarations could jump five-fold, with the National Audit Office indicating that we could be dealing with as many as 260 million customs declarations a year, up from 55 million. This would undoubtedly swamp the current customs system, leading to delays at crossing points, increased risk of non-compliance and queues of lorries, for example, trying to cross onto the European continent at Dover and Folkestone in Kent.
The twin problems of a massive jump in regulated visitors to the UK, and an even greater increase in regulated imports could be tackled in a number of ways. To handle the influx of passengers needing security checks, we could develop our immigration infrastructure by adding dozens more kiosks at ports and border crossings, along with new admission lines at airport terminals. Alongside this, the UK could greatly increase staffing of its Border Force, providing new officers to operate all of the new admissions points. The problem with this strategy is that it requires a huge outlay of money and a continued increase in annual spend on border controls.
An alternative, cheaper solution, however, would be to leverage emerging technologies and increase the sharing of data among agencies to fix problems before they become unmanageable. The current systems for immigration and customs control were built up over nearly half a century and as such, organisations were established with their own siloed solutions, layering legacy software system upon legacy software system, all of which were designed to support the EU. While it might be ideal to wipe these away and begin afresh, such a wholesale revamp isn’t practical. Instead, it will be faster and more economical to bridge divides among legacy systems by creating interfaces that permit easy sharing of information, so that data in one department can be easily accessed by another. This approach would enable us to more efficiently handle the increase in traffic and customs declarations without needing to make vast investments in infrastructure and manpower.
The first element of this data-focussed strategy lies in biometrics, which I believe is the single most effective way of increasing the efficiency with which Border Force officers can check travellers’ identities. For decades, the passport has been the traditional method of establishing who a person is at the border. If the photo on the passport matches the face of the person carrying it, and the name in the passport matches the name that the bearer gives, they are probably who they say there are. The issue with this is that passports can be stolen, altered or forged.
To eradicate these issues, identification could be enhanced with biometrics, using fingerprints, facial recognition and retinal scans to confirm a person’s identity. Indeed, rather than depend on just one or two forms of ID, multiple forms of biometrics can be layered to give increased confidence of a person’s identity. Adopting this approach would mean that with the touch of a finger, or a single glance at a scanner, anyone could unquestionably prove their identity, simplifying the immigration official’s task. The more biometrics match, the greater confidence Border Force officials will have, making the admission of people far more efficient.
Such technology has been met with reticence in the past and viewed as overly intrusive, but as Caroline Flint MP recently pointed out during a Leidos roundtable on this subject: “Think of all the data Facebook has on millions of citizens – 39 million in the UK alone. It collects far more personal information than the state would ever ask for, that is far more intrusive and won’t help an ambulance to find your blood type in a road accident. Why are we more afraid of the government than poorly regulated global internet giants?” The growing positive sentiment around biometrics has been demonstrated by its recent deployment at Heathrow airport in what’s been described as ‘the biggest single deployment of biometric technology in the world’.
A similar philosophy can be applied to expediting the clearance of goods at customs. When a shipper sends a shipment to the UK, packed within a cargo container, the usual practice is to file a shipping manifest describing the cargo’s contents. But how do you know for sure that what’s on the manifest matches what’s in the box? The time and labour-intensive answer to this question is to conduct regular spot checks, opening up cargo containers and examining their contents by hand. But with customs declarations growing five-fold post-Brexit, that approach will no longer be effective. Here too, technology and data sharing can help to solve the problem.
Already, the UK is using X-ray vision technology to reveal the contents of cargo containers without having to open them. Such X-ray vision is useful, but where it really helps with speeding up customs clearance is when X-ray images are merged with data from customs manifests to search for discrepancies. When a container’s X-ray reveals goods matching those described in a cargo manifest, HMRC officials can have greater confidence in the reliability of the data contained on that manifest. Conversely, in the case of discrepancies, HMRC will know that these are the containers they must devote most attention to, applying more hands-on verification. Once software is designed to fuse data in this way, the need for physical inspections of cargo upon arrival in port declines greatly.
On a smaller scale, data from customs declarations by individuals can be similarly fused with X-ray data on luggage to accelerate travellers’ passage through airport customs. By permitting data to do more ‘heavy lifting’ and sharing this intelligence across departments, the potential for cost saving across organisations such as HMRC and Border Force is great. Border Force officers and HMRC must have easy access to both this information, and to the analytics that make sense of it, to facilitate customs and immigration decisions regardless of which ‘silo’ the information was created in.
With any conversation around increased automation, a common concern is how such increased automation could affect the prospects of workers – in this case, the 10,000 people currently employed as border agents, as well as many others working elsewhere in the customs and immigration sector. Arguably, far from the dramatic fears often expressed about ‘job-killing’ technologies – the mainstreaming of automation would allow for border staff to be deployed on more rewarding tasks, which make better use of investigatory skills. This could even have beneficial knock-on effects on crime reduction.
Another important aspect of border control must be securing the border itself. Along the border and at points where goods and people cross it, the UK already possesses multiple layers of sensors for security, from CCTV and motion detectors to satellite, aerial surveillance and drone coverage. Monitoring data feeds from each of these sensors individually, however, requires vast amounts of manpower. In a scenario that we are understaffed, certain data feeds could be left unmonitored, creating dangerous gaps in coverage.
A way of improving this system is through artificial intelligence and predictive modelling. This would allow data feeds from multiple sensors to be merged into one unified feed that will monitor a given area in a variety of ways, and permit tracking of a single object of interest as it moves across multiple sensors. Such an approach has the potential to dramatically cut down staffing costs, freeing up resource that will be needed elsewhere post-Brexit. One single staffer could monitor such a unified feed or, reducing manpower requirements even further, the process could be largely automated. With AI and predictive modelling, feeds can be monitored automatically, with a human brought into the loop only when something happens to set off an alert indicating a need for closer examination.
What all these solutions have in common is that they propose harnessing tools which the UK already has at its disposal and data already produced for the most part, to apply them in tandem creating a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts.
Biometric fingerprints, retinal scans and facial recognition records can enhance accuracy of the photographic and printed data contained in a passport to better confirm the identity of the bearer - just as cargo manifests can be compared to X-ray images of cargo containers to improve confidence about what is inside containers. Likewise, sharing data from multiple sensor feeds allows technology to work as a force multiplier, not just cutting down the number of employees needed for monitoring, but actually enhancing the quality of data by creating a more complete picture.
The better that we become at sharing the data that the UK is already creating, the more we can reduce the need to spend more and hire more to manage the surge in regulated people and goods crossing the border after Brexit. There’s a staggering amount of work to be done in a short time, but the task is neither insurmountable, nor should it come at a proportionately greater expense to the UK taxpayer. On the contrary, it is a chance to do things better. As John Vine, former Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration put it: “Brexit is a great opportunity to look at an overarching whole government plan to border control.”
By taking full advantage of biometrics, in non-intrusive methods for examining persons and cargo to and most crucially, in data sharing among government agencies, it is possible to enhance the security of border crossings, accelerate processing time, and deal with the new influx of traffic – and all at a reasonable cost.