Private sector to build invisible national borders

Solutions: CBP biometrics pilot
U.S. Customs and Border Protection biometric border control pilot program at Otay Mesa, San Diego. Source: CBP.

There is much talk in the international media about walled or fenced borders being erected in Europe in response to unprecedented refugee flows from Syria; and then, of course, there is US President Donald Trump’s proposed US-Mexico border wall. It is said that more walls are being built now than at any other time in history.

Borders have fast become politicised symbols of national sovereignty as governments rush to be seen by their constituents as taking back control of their territorial integrity and defending against terrorists, undocumented refugee hordes and the threat of cheap immigrant labour displacing local workers.

Outsourcing borders

While this may well be the case, running parallel to this the less sensationally reported fact that many governments are actually looking to the private sector to provide secure yet altogether less visible border solutions. These solutions are envisaged to allow free-flow border crossing for ‘registered/enrolled’ or ‘frequent’ travellers on the one hand, and enhanced screening and security measures for the rest.

As such, the challenge put out by government to business is to come up with border management solutions that reconcile the simultaneous – yet seemingly contradictory – political aims of making borders more secure yet less obtrusive.

“Border management programs are basically the biggest business for the security industry now,” Frank Doherty, European operations director for border technology firm MSA, told NBC News.

MSA, which has mainly focused on the Middle East where countries such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Oman favour fortified barriers, is now observing the apparent opportunities to increase its portfolio in Europe. But, says Doherty, Europeans generally don’t want highly visible borders.

The company has developed ‘intelligent fences’ that are capable of detecting intruders, as well as ground sensors and long-range security cameras that can see up to 24 km away.

In Austria, a handheld biometric data collections device is being developed to be capable of being deployed in fluid border crossing contexts where the lack of border fences and border checking facilities mean that checks need to be done wherever people are choosing to cross.

According to Horizon, the EU research and innovation magazine, the EU-funded Austrian Institute of Technology MobilePass project has developed a handheld device that can collect biometric data from a passport and scan passenger’s fingerprints and faces. Researchers claim that secure biometric scans and thorough passport checks would take around 22 seconds with the device.

The device can scan a finger just by having it held up in front of it, and securely transmit the data to a central database to compare a traveller’s fingerprints. The data is then compared with the photograph and 10 fingerprints of the traveller taken at time of visa application (a European Schengen visa requirement) and centrally stored in the visa system.

Biometrics-enabled flow

The EU has for several years been exploring various options to modernise and improve security for the external borders of the Schengen area. Its ‘Smart Borders Package’ includes a new Entry/Exit System (EES) and a Registered Traveller Programme (RTP).

The EES will electronically record travellers’ time and place of entry and exit to the Schengen area, and the RTP will utilise biometric data such as fingerprints, facial image and iris recognition to allow pre-enrolled and frequent travelers to experience simplified border checks.

Negotiations between European member states, however, are ongoing, with the Syrian refugee crisis having intensified calls for more secure borders yet at the same time ushering in a border context much changed from that in which the Smart Borders Package was originally envisaged.

Interestingly, it’s the tiny tourism-dependent Caribbean nation of Aruba that has been leading the way in passenger experience. The May 2015 launch of Aruba Happy Flow saw Aruba’s Queen Beatrix International Airport become the first in the world to provide a 100% self-service passenger experience.

Aruba Happy Flow achieves a process in which certain passengers are only required to show his or her passport once throughout their departure journey through the airport. The use of facial recognition allows the passenger to proceed to check-in, drop off baggage, pass the border and board the aircraft, all without being required to show a passport or boarding pass again.

Vision-Box, a provider of end-to-end passenger experience solutions, automated border control and electronic identity solutions, is behind Happy Flow. The company has already deployed more than 1,000 Automated Border Control and Passenger Experience solutions in 50 international airports.

In addition to enhancing the traveller experience, the solution provides authorities with an end-to-end management platform that provides for the “monitoring of the whole passenger process with multiple security, efficiency and revenue benefits,” according to Vision-Box Senior Vice-President Miguel Leitmann.

Smart phones for smart borders

European Dynamics in Luxembourg is working on a system that uses facial recognition to begin screening people before they leave home. ‘You can use what you have at home, a personal computer, without expert or specialised scanners,’ European Dynamics’ Anastasia Garbi told Horizon.

The concept involves travellers using their smart phone to photos of their passport, visa and proof of funds and uploading them to a website. Using a webcam, they then spend a few minutes answering questions posed to them from a computer-animated avatar border officer.

That provides border authorities with a series of facial images they can use to compare against stored images from a passport or past entries/exits. The type of facial image comparison this affords is more difficult to copy than a fingerprint.

“If you have a video capture, and you have some questions along with this, you get pictures of the reactions of the face of the traveller,” explained Garbi. “This is very difficult to copy.”

The avatar is even capable of using facial biometrics (micro-expressions) to analyse the non-verbal behaviour of the interviewee and to indicate whether the passenger is lying. The site then transmits the inputs to a secure back-end system that calculates an aggregated risk factor. High risk travellers are flagged for thorough checking, and low risk travellers flagged for lighter scrutiny leading to entry clearance.

It sounds a far cry from having to attend a visa office in person to sit an interview and/or submit one’s biometrics as part of the visa application process. However, it will likely be some time before governments become comfortable with the level of security and assurance afforded by smartphone-based biometric collection solutions and webcam visa interviews.

On the one hand, there remain significant question marks over the security of personal data stored and transmitted via smartphone, although the major banks have made significant inroads into adopting smartphone biometric fingerprint technology – and will ultimately provide a relevant precedent for government policy makers.

On the other hand, the potential use of avatars as quasi assessment or decision making agents will likely pose prickly legislative, procedural and risk management questions for immigration authorities.

In the meantime, we will likely witness the proliferation of an increasingly wide range of ‘smart border’ solutions as governments scramble to find economically and socially sustainable ways of maximising the mobility through their borders of bona fide tourists, business people, students, workers and migrants, and managing the risks posed by irregular migration, identity fraudsters and travellers with bogus visa claims.

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