The digital border

14 November 2017

There is a great deal of speculation about the implications of Brexit for border management.

Possibly the only certainty now is that there will be change in some form.

But although Brexit dominates public discourse, it is just one of several drivers for change in the management of a border that sees 315 million people, 500 million tonnes of freight and £700 billion of goods crossing it every year.

Brexit is the nearest and loudest of these drivers. In itself it presents an unprecedented opportunity for the UK to spearhead a new approach to sharing data between industry, government and border agencies, both here and internationally.

But there are many other factors which combine to present a golden opportunity to improve border management.

These include the global trend towards increased mobility of people, and the advancing biometric technology revolution.

The government aspires to digital-first services, and there is wider acceptance of the benefits that digitisation of data – adequately protected – can bring. This is coupled with growing public expectations of faster, smoother and more convenient services.

And there is a pressing need for enhanced security in the face of a global and fluid terrorist threat.

The common theme in these drivers is identity.

The ability to trust the identity of someone or something is a foundation of secure systems.

But we can go further than that.

It is possible to build a comprehensive identification picture of who someone (or something) is – ranging across financial, health education, qualifications, travel and more – but ensure that person maintains control of the information and decides how it is used.

Biometric and blockchain technology enable the information to be securely shared for a myriad of purposes the citizen may choose, such as opening a bank account, renewing a driving licence, or visiting a country for study or medical treatment.

This would be hugely disruptive of the current system of global identity checks for people, which is still largely paper-based and manual; while there is greater digitisation in the movement of freight and goods, the paper trail is still vast.

There is also a commercial need for a deeper understanding of identity, such as know your customer schemes in financial services.

Dramatic rises in identity theft and digital crime require a new approach to digital identity. Filling in forms and validating identity with each provider increases the attack surface – the possible places where identity theft can happen.

A single copy of a person’s identity data, protected by multiple biometric modes (face, fingerprints, iris) and shared as needed, significantly reduces this risk.

The biometric revolution is going mainstream. Devices support advanced checks. Shops are accepting payment via biometric proof.

The opportunity is to extend these biometric validation services to the needs of border control, building on systems such as e-Passports and trusted traveller programmes.

Tamper-proof, shared electronic records for people or cargo movement could be the solution to the fears of long queues at the busiest ports, such as Heathrow and Dover. Furthermore, public acceptance of steps taken to help security, such as appropriate checks on identity, is growing as recent terrorist atrocities provide a dreadful reminder of the threat we face.

Underpinning this is the challenge of operating with constrained resources for the foreseeable future. Embracing the technological leaps made in assured digital identity could see significant savings in the longer-term.

Whatever changes the country’s withdrawal from the European Union bring, the UK’s border will remain geographical, political and commercial.

KBR believes the time is fast approaching when it can be fully digital as well.

Tim Ellis, Director, Government Services, KBR

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