What do new technologies mean for border security in the UK? A recent CSW round table brought together academics and senior officials to explore the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead. Mark Rowe reports.
Top row (l-r): John Mears, vice president & tech fellow, Leidos; Simon Chapman, police adviser - Centre for Applied Science and Technology, Home Office; Ariela Ferber, senior policy advisor - identity security policy team, Border, Immigration and Citizenship System (BICS) Policy Directorate, Home Office; Sharon Madge, head of UK capture, Leidos; Matt Palmer, risk resilience manager, Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service; Geoff Whitaker, technical specialist, forensics and identity, Home Office Centre for Applied Science and Technology
Bottom row (l-r): Marcia Wilson, interviewing officer for the Department for Work and Pension; Richard Freeman, senior police and security adviser, Department for International Trade; Professor James Ferryman, University of Reading; Gareth Prosser, senior officer, Border Strategy, National Crime Agency
Imagine a world in which we travel seamlessly from one country to another, physical borders all but made invisible by an all-powerful chip in our mobile phones. Inside that chip – or less fashionably, in our passports – will be our identity, a virtual ‘us’: the chip will comprise verified biometric data ranging from fingerprint and iris to voice recognition and even our gait, the way we walk, or the shape of our wrist or finger bones.
This is the world depicted by biometrics experts and it, or at least the technology that will enable it, is either here already or imminent. Following in its slipstream are huge opportunities – and challenges – for border security.
Such eye-catching innovations, and how government can implement them effectively, were the subject of a recent round table held by Civil Service World in conjunction with Leidos, a science and technology solutions and services provider working in the defence, intelligence, national security, civil, and health markets. The round table brought together leading academics with public sector practitioners to explore the latest developments in biometrics and border security technology research.
As the UK faces complex threats from organised crime and extremist groups, the government is under pressure to improve border and public security at the same time as driving efficiencies. The issue is particularly pressing as UK agencies plan to reform and re-design their systems to support post-Brexit immigration and security arrangements.
Quickly, it became apparent that different civil servants brought disparate perspectives and concerns. “Insider threats are of particular interest along with the use of drones,” said Gareth Prosser, senior officer, border strategy for the National Crime Agency. For Marcia Wilson, interviewing officer for the Department for Work and Pensions, the concern was how Brexit would affect jobs at her department and its ability to embrace biometric technology, while Simon Chapman, police adviser, the Centre for Applied Science and Technology at the Home Office, expressed the importance of using biometrics when “engaging with intelligence agencies across Europe”. Matt Palmer, risk resilience manager at HM Prison and Probation Service looked at the issue from the other side: what opportunities did biometric technology offer criminals? “From a prison point of view, whatever is implemented nationally or globally will have an impact on us,” he said. “This may assist us, but on the other side are the offenders we get – what dangers and damage can they do with this?”
The discussion began with a presentation by Professor James Ferryman, of the University of Reading, who outlined the extraordinary potential for biometrics to truly transform the way in which we cross borders. Ferryman leads PROTECT, an EU-funded project developing a biometrics-based personal ID system for border surveillance. It was feasible, he said, for biometrics to develop free-flow and faster border control by reducing the need for physical borders and enhancing security at the same time. “Travellers need to be fully aware of when and how borders are going to be different,” he said.
Ferryman described a world where borders become “biometric capture areas and corridors” through which air and sea travellers would move seamlessly. Having completed any applications online in advance, the biometrics in their phone, or passport, would be recognised in this “corridor”.
“The number of passengers through our airports is projected to double over the next 20-30 years – the rise in data flows will be stupendous”
Gareth Prosser, National Crime Agency
Land borders, said Ferrymen, would need to establish an effective means of scanning people within a vehicle. This process “would not be quite non-stop,” he said, “but border guards could scan a device inside the car to verify passengers identity.”
The discussion shifted quickly from the potential capabilities and benefits of biometrics and instead shone an intense spotlight on the practicalities of implementing such a system. These included the training of border guards and, as Prosser put it, “the enormous weight that was being placed on the chip in the passports or phones and on those who inputted the data into these systems”.
Public trust in extensive biometrics and data collection – which is particularly important to civil servants on the front line who will be the ones who must implement any such measures – came under heavy scrutiny. Some participants argued that a yawning gap separates technology and a lack of public trust in governments to implement said technology. But John Mears, vice-president and tech fellow for Leidos, challenged these assumptions. He presented findings from the IATA 2017 Global Passenger Survey, which showed that most travellers preferred self-boarding technologies like e-gates at airports, and also chose biometric identification as their preferred travelling token. “However, educating the public about biometrics is still important in most border crossing applications,” he said. “Without effective educational efforts, there is room for [public] misunderstanding and confusion about usage which can slow the process.”
He added that there needed to be a clearer discussion around the fact that privacy and anonymity are not synonymous. One can remain anonymous but have one’s privacy invaded, he suggested, and likewise one can be identified without losing privacy. The way for governments to counter misunderstanding is to be transparent and to educate, he said: “People should also understand that there is a sovereign need to be identified when they cross our borders.”
When it comes to trust, the panel agreed there was a clear paradox. As Ariela Ferber, senior policy adviser, identity, security policy team at the Home Office, said: “People seem to trust Apple to hold their data but distrust the government – actually we police it very well.” The group agreed that there was insufficient data on public opinion and attitudes towards perceived biometric intrusion and potential benefits; and that research was needed on this.
Another issue is that some biometric technologies have been shown to be vulnerable to individual spoofing. Government and industry must constantly identify these weaknesses and develop effective countermeasures. Difficulties can also emerge from benign sources, said Mears. “For instance, if people are allowed to submit their own enrolment photos, they sometimes Photoshop their faces because they are vain. They remove the blemishes and wrinkles and bags, but these ‘features’ are what makes you identifiable and distinct from other people who might look like you.” He added that there is academic research to detect even benign sources of deception.
Ageing is another issue to unpick: would people as they grow older have to re-enrol to ensure their faces were recognised? Mears said that many face recognition systems can reliably re-recognise people as they age, but children have remained a challenge. He said: “Those identifying blemishes and wrinkles we acquire as we age are not yet present in the smooth skin of children.” Fingerprints have been shown to be effective identifiers even for very young children, he said, and DNA can also be used with certainty with children. While processing times for DNA are not yet rapid enough for most routine border crossings, Mears said, it is gaining support for use in cases where human trafficking or immigration fraud is suspected since DNA is the only biometric which can determine family relationships.
Other practical issues arose: being able to glide through passport control was of little use if you still had to wait for half an hour at the airport luggage carousel. Geoff Whitaker, technical specialist, forensics and identity at the Home Office Centre for Applied Science and Technology, noted: “We can develop a British solution but it may be of limited value if other countries don’t facilitate it.”
Inevitably, capacity and cost cast large shadows over technology, and biometrics looks likely to be no different. “The number of passengers through our airports is projected to double over the next 20-30 years,” said Prosser. “The rise in data flows will be stupendous and [if biometric data is collected] then we are looking at something quite significant, a quadrupling of data.” Reflecting on the cost of implementing new technologies, Gill suggested that it may be possible to introduce them to certain groups first, badging them as a premium service for business travellers, for example. This would help to both stagger and recoup the cost of implementation.
Many of the potential applications for biometrics that were outlined at the roundtable go beyond current laws on the use of data, but introducing new legislation is challenging with an already-packed parliamentary timetable. Ferber said every effort had to be made to implement technology within existing laws rather than requiring new ones. “It will be challenging. The more that can be done without further legislation the better,” she said.
There’s no denying that the roundtable identified a significant number of bear traps in relation to biometrics and border security. Yet Gill said this should not be a barrier to deploying it judiciously. “I’m at the optimistic end of things,” she said. “How do we make our systems work better, how do we land it with our contractors and suppliers? We can’t do this by ourselves, we need to identify the challenges, and work out how we meet and mitigate them.”