The future of the UK border

15 November 2017

Having spent a lifetime working in Border Control – from passport inspections at Heathrow back in the 1970s, through to leading the UK Border Agency’s London 2012 Olympic Programme – I am delighted to be participating in ongoing discussions about the future of the UK Border.

A lot of rubbish has been said and written about the state of the UK Border. No border is perfect; but I can say with some authority the UK Border Force is one of the best in the world in its field. Our Border Force, police, and security services work closely together to ensure intelligence is shared to maximum effect, to minimise risk. We check every person entering the UK against watch lists; we receive and analyse passenger data in advance, working closely with airlines and other transportation companies to acquire it; and we use enhanced data analytical systems to give our enforcement agencies the best risk assessment tools around. In this we are not alone; our friends and colleagues in border agencies around the world are adopting similar measures. Indeed, many of them ask me if they can visit us to learn from us.

But with air traffic set to double over the next 20 years, and freight set to triple over the same period, Border Agencies are facing unprecedented challenges. And with Brexit and the end of free movement of people of goods, the UK Border Force urgently needs investment in new systems and processes to manage the massive increase in transactions on intra EU traffic and EU and EEA passport holders that Brexit will bring.

The time has come for a paradigm shift in the way we manage Border Controls. This comes not through the injection of more physical checks into an infrastructure already struggling to cope with volume; but through much greater investment in new and emerging technologies.

Since leaving public service I have been fortunate enough to witness some of the very best technologies now emerging at borders around the world. Artificial intelligence, the “internet of things”, biometrics, blockchain, the cloud, digital technology and the like are all developing at huge pace.

The introduction of these technologies into future borders will, in my view, lead to the next paradigm shift in Border Control. But regardless of the capabilities of such technology, this can only be realised through collaboration. That means bringing together all the key ingredients of the eco system that surrounds border management. Control Agencies, airlines, airports, rail and sea carriers, port control authorities, academics, policy makers and technology providers (big and small) must unite behind this common purpose. They all have a role to play.

In my experience, the most successful Border Security programmes don’t make the news. It is those that fail that hit the headlines. I have seen my share of failures; but I have also been fortunate enough to have been involved in some excellent national and international border projects over the years.

I would not claim to be an expert in new and emerging technology – far from it. But of one thing, I am certain. We will only be able to deliver the border of the future if we work together across national and international boundaries to do so. Then – and only then – we will see the paradigm shift in border controls that is so urgently required.

Tony Smith CBE, Managing Director, Fortinus Global, Global Border Security Consultant. Former Director General, UK Border Force

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