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by Sofia Villegas
06 March 2024
Uncertainty over digitising border control running high, committee hears

E-gates at Heathrow airport | Alamy

Uncertainty over digitising border control running high, committee hears

Support for further digitisation of border control procedures is fragmented, a House of Lords committee has heard. 

During a recent meeting, the Justice and Home Affairs Committee heard evidence from the former director general of the UK border control, Tony Smith, on electronic border management systems. 

Talking about the Electronic Travel Authorisation (ETA), Smith raised concerns about the lack of clarity of the risk assessment framework set to complement the digital authorisation.

As part of the UK Government's Border Strategy, all non-visa nationals, including EU and USA travellers, will have to present an advanced permission to travel to the UK – ETA or a VISA, before entering the country. The authorisation is expected to come into force by the end of the year.

Smith called for a business case to outline the UK’s “risk appetite” which will dictate what ETAs are granted. He also voiced concerns that we might become “too reliant” on the information we are receiving electronically. 

However, he also admitted ETAs would “enhance security” as more data would be gathered about travellers before arrival and added it would help streamline border control, as the “thorough” checks would have been done before arriving in the UK. 

Yet, he also pointed out that there must always be a “human intervention”, as technology is not flawless. 

For instance, he recognised algorithms might make mistakes so an officer should always look at an ETA application to see what the “flag” is and if this is "sufficient to overturn the ETA".

Smith also raised concerns over a Common Travel Area loophole. He questioned what is stopping someone travelling to Ireland, and then into the UK, from failing to carry out two separate ETAs for both countries. 

When discussing how to keep digitised border control safe, Smith proposed three benchmarks - multiple borders strategy, meaning how much you can push the border out. In other words, what can be done before the traveller arrives in the UK. Then, an integrated border management, meaning what you do with the data once you have it. And a reliable biometric and identity infrastructure so it can confirm that a person is who they claim they are. 

Touching on the skills gap, he said border control officers “play a game of cat and mouse” with criminals. He said that as the latter invests more in finding a way around systems such as biometric checks, there has to be a parallel investment to ensure electronic systems are not “spoofed”.

Looking into the future, he argued for an “incremental” approach towards digitization and called for a “good interface between the government and aviation systems”, so that airlines invested in the technology needed to adapt to local digital systems. 

He coined an “intelligence-led border control” as the “thing of the future”. So, to gather all the information possible before arrival to assess if someone is worth stopping at the border.

He also said digital credentials stored in chips could potentially replace passports and E-gate procedures might eventually be transferred into a mobile app.

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