UK needs digital upgrade of borders, says Reform

Think tank report outlines chain of technologies to manage rising number of travellers and customs checks

Britain needs to make better use of technology in managing its border to ensure public safety as increasing numbers of people move in and out of the country, according to think tank Reform.

Border Force officials from behindWith the support of Accenture it has published a report on the issue, The future of public services: digital borders, that emphasises the idea of the border as a process that requires the government to collect and use data intelligently.

This requires a chain of technologies that involves the use of digital portals before a trip, biometrics on entering and leaving the country, information from the internet of things while in transit, and machine learning to improve processes.

“To create a truly global Britain, the border must inspire confidence in its safety, effortlessly facilitate the transfer of cargo and process visitors instantly,” the report says.

“To do this, the UK must upgrade the border. Better use of data to understand demand, and more advanced technology – such as biometrics and artificial intelligence (AI) – to collect and analyse this information will improve risk assessments while reducing queues.”

Reducing queues

It says that new technology can reduce queues at passport control to 15 seconds, and that better information on goods entering the country can cut inspection time from six hours to 12 minutes.

This would enable the UK Border Force to cope with rising numbers of people entering the country. Currently 123 million enter the UK each year and the think tank predicts it will double by 2050.

It will be possible to use technology to make human interactions redundant for the majority of travellers. There is potential for the internet of things to provide real time data sharing; for AI to take over many of the more mundane tasks carried out by border officers; and for blockchain to provide a single ‘truth’ of a journey that would be accessible to authorised parties.

In addition, e-gates and facial recognition cameras could remove the need for a physical border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland following Brexit. 

Alexander Hitchcock, the report’s co-author, said: “Technology can remove any fear of a return to a hard border between the UK and Ireland, while increasing ease of doing business. This will go a long way to fulfil the Government’s aim of a truly global Britain following Brexit.”

Customs advantage

New technologies could contribute to dealing with an estimated 480 million custom checks per year, up from the current 90 million, if the UK leaves the customs union after Brexit. The pressure could be eased by shipping firms sharing information on cargo before arrival, and in-built sensors could track the movement of containers and the condition of livestock and food.

Accurately identifying the goods entering the country could also increase tax receipts collected at the border, Reform argues.

The report also recommends that non-British visitors should make a small contribution to invest in the UK border, following the lead of many other countries. A £10 fee would be in line with the USA’s charge for international visitors, and this could raise up to £450 million a year, equivalent to 80% of the UK Border Force’s 2016-17 budget. 

Surprisingly, the report makes no reference to the Home Office’s e-Borders programme, which last year was criticised by Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee after long delays in its implementation and an absence of most of the promised benefits.

Picture adapted from image by the Home Office, uploaded by Opihuck,Open Government Licence v3.0 via Wikimedia Commons