New technologies for border control

With the number of air passengers predicted to rise by 50% by 2037, airports must reinvent themselves to ensure that controls run smoothly while guaranteeing enhanced security.1 The market is therefore adapting, as evidenced by the forecast of a 16.20% increase in its size between now and 2028.2 From artificial intelligence and scanners to facial recognition and intelligent seals—border control for passengers and goods are being reinvented to ensure a safer world. But without being fully convincing…

By Diane Cassain

An overview

Although the use of biometrics in airports is not new, recent developments by market leaders are opening new horizons. The new multimodal biometric module from Thales will enable border authorities to automate their procedures. It recognises the iris and face of preregistered travellers from a distance of 50 cm to 1.5 m, and the built-in artificial intelligence retrieves the iris and face data in 2 seconds – enabling rapid identification of the passenger. For its part, Nexcom International Co. Ltd, a Taiwanese supplier, has recently developed an automated border control solution based on artificial intelligence and biometric identification, reducing wait times at checkpoints and enhancing security. An other company, Idemia, now equips approximately 20 governments with its border management and control solutions. Its Augmented Border project combines electronic gates, entry-exit systems and risk analysis systems to avoid long queues. States such as Pakistan are developing their own automated border management and control systems. The National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) has launched its Automated Finger Identification System (AFIS), « NADIR, » with an estimated accuracy rate of over 99.5%.3 The United States, which had launched a contactless biometric entry-exit programme, encountered several difficulties during the launch. « We worked very closely on how we could streamline this process, and essentially ran into obstacles in our exit mission, because we didn’t have that infrastructure to be able to capture fingerprints on everybody departing the U.S, »4 said Jody Hardin, Executive Director for Planning, Program Analysis and Evaluation at U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). CPB, together with private companies and MIT, have developed a facial recognition solution, Traveler Verification Services (TVS). The system uses a photograph from a driving licence or passport and compares it with existing images of a person to verify their identity. A success for Jody Hardin: « We found that the facial comparison technology actually was the best way to be able to match to holdings that we already had, we had captured information on these people as they came in, and just being able to do a quick match of their face to the documents that they’re presenting. »5 Since then, the CPB has even been planning to outsource some of the entry and exit formalities to mobile applications. One of these forms can already be completed on an app.

Simplified controls and improved security

There was an urgent need to simplify border controls and guarantee better security in the face of the excessive number of travellers entering countries illegally and to reduce waiting times at airports. To this end, biometric systems have proved their worth. Facial recognition – the system used in the United States – avoids the problems sometimes encountered with fingerprint recognition. If fingerprints are damaged by age or if a finger is missing, the system can become less effective. The United States, which now has biometric checkpoints at 48 airports, identified « 1,851 impostors and 275,371 overstayers » this year, with high biometric match rates: 99% on entry and 98% on exit.6

Botswana and Namibia, meanwhile, have opted to harmonise their systems and identity cards. Namibia’s cards now have a QR code and an automatic reading zone, and Botswana’s border control system has been adapted to read these new identity cards. In addition, the positive consequences go far beyond the expected results: Boosting trade and passenger flows, facilitating cultural and artistic exchanges and creating jobs in sectors such as tourism are just a few examples.

Uncertainties persist

Although the introduction of new technologies linked to border controls may represent several opportunities, some questions are being raised, for example, the use of passengers’ biometric data. In the United States, « if biometric data is stolen or misused, travellers have little recourse. There is no federal law governing the use of biometric data, although some states are beginning to create a patchwork of legal protections, »7 says Alex Alben, professor of private law, data and cybersecurity at the law schools of the University of California at Los Angeles and the University of Washington. This is a purely American problem, because « in the European Union and the United Kingdom, companies must obtain consumers’ permission to collect their data and must tell them what it will be used for, » continues the law professor.

Critics of facial recognition, which is beginning to be used for border controls, believe that it represents a threat to civil liberties and that it reinforces discrimination against an already marginalised community. Once again, the issue of the ethics of algorithms and the lack of transparency in the way they are used are put forward as arguments. Several U.S. senators have requested a halt to the use of this technology at customs, citing multiple studies showing that Asians and African Americans are up to 100 times more likely to be misidentified than white men.

Privacy considerations aside, the machine may simply fail. Last May, the UK’s “E-Gates” suffered a « technical failure of the border system »8 that affected the country’s main airports, creating chaos at several airports – a potential threat to national security, say some experts.9

Securing trade

In addition to the illegal crossing of borders by individuals, the issue of the illegal entry or exit of goods or prohibited substances is also a concern. The porous nature of the borders between certain states, corruption and the lack of detection capacity are all factors that make it difficult to control goods. Once again, the development of new technologies is helping address these often longstanding challenges. The port of Antwerp – the main gateway for cocaine into Europe, with a record 110 tonnes seized in 202210 – is an ideal playground for traffickers who could see their « business » jeopardised by the arrival of a new technology. In September 2023, new smart seals were introduced. Fitted with sensors that collect information such as temperature, humidity, vibrations and location, these seals enable real-time monitoring and data collection of maritime containers at sea and on land. Their goal is to improve the security, efficiency and visibility of container transport worldwide and to be used in the fight against narco-terrorism. Other countries, such as Malaysia, are planning to launch a smart seal test phase to prevent smuggling and, consequently, boost the country’s revenue. The smart seals are already being used by several East African countries (Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi), with convincing results: a 20% increase in tax revenues for these countries.11 For now, no date has been given for the system’s entry into service. Dubai Customs recently equipped the Jebel Ali customs centre with state-of-the-art X-ray scanning technology for inspecting heavy and light vehicles, large equipment, yachts and containers. The technology operates in both stationary and mobile modes and can accurately detect and locate radioactive materials, identify customs declarations using container numbers and significantly improve inspection capabilities on the underside of vehicles and lorries. In Cameroon, the persistence of smuggling and counterfeiting coupled with highly porous borders and an ineffective land border control system have prompted the authorities to install mobile scanners. These scanners will enhance the verification of goods at customs checkpoints. New technologies represent opportunities for customs authorities to protect borders. However, they do not always have the means to fulfill their ambitions…





5 Ibid