Borders of the future – is data sharing the answer?

With the impact of COVID-19 on cross border traffic, there has never been a greater need reimagine the way our borders operate, with airline and port operators needing to find efficiencies to survive, and governments needing to understand and define biosecurity measures to protect travellers and their citizens. Thanks to the legislation, including the Data Protection Act 1998 and the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), there are also strict stipulations around how we store, secure and share the data collected about those embarking on journeys.

A fine balance needs to be struck between protecting personal data and using this wealth of information to transform the ways our borders operate and keep passengers safe.  

So, what are the benefits we can realise from improved data sharing across our borders?

Data, including biometrics, can make our journeys seamless. For example, when a traveller checks in at home, a biometric image can be taken and associated with their boarding pass, which can then be used to verify their identity when the passport chip is scanned and verified against Government databases. As the passenger moves through the airport, biometric scanners can allow access to different areas, such as departure lounges and the correct gate – without the need for the passenger to ever show their boarding pass. The passenger can be given context-specific guidance on their journey, then real-time guidance as they set off.

Using automated biometric authentication across our borders would have a fundamental impact on the efficiency or the journey. Also, providing real time guidance based on a passenger’s position in their journey will help remove queues and gathering points, which will increase safety.

Data protection needs to be a built-in feature for this form of biometric scanning – and has already been considered thanks to the use of encrypted image storage and splitting images into un-recognisable characteristics across a number of servers, with images deleted as soon as the passenger finishes their journey.

Improved data sharing can help the UK’s border agencies make more informed decisions and improve the management of risk.

But there are obstacles. One is that different agencies’ systems are not always able to share data, and this is something we must tackle. A multitude of government agencies have an interest in the operation of our borders, so shouldn’t we be seeing this as an opportunity to replace legacy technology with newer innovations that can interface better and share intelligence? Data sharing would promote a move towards earlier and more effective intervention. By having a richer picture of people and goods being moved, we are better informed and can take earlier action against criminal activity.

With the heightened need to share medical data, we should take the opportunity to create a framework to share data nationally and internationally to address out key safety and security risks. National standards and international agreements will be a vital element of restoring international trust.

Given how long it takes to upgrade hard infrastructure, monitoring assets via digital twins could provide ample benefits for the build, construction and maintenance of our borders. By creating a digital copy of border infrastructure, we would be able to run scenarios and rigorously test critical systems to ensure they are robust enough to operate efficiently in light of any potential disruptions.

These digital twins could also ensure the longevity of border assets, by monitoring the condition of the site and ensuring all necessary maintenance is completed. To make this possible, a greater amount of data sharing would be required between all involved suppliers and those who manage the borders.

Realising the benefits

COVID-19 has caused a fundamental shift in the security controls which need to be applied at our ports. Those who are already sharing their data through the likes of digital twins and even less sophisticated digital models are best placed to model the deployment of new measures that could protect passengers and build confidence to encourage a return to travel.

To realise all the benefits of increased data across our borders, there are two main obstacles that we need to overcome. The first centres around the inability for some key agencies and operators to even facilitate data sharing through their use of legacy systems that don’t support data sharing. The second is about trust in digital services and their ability to protect people’s privacy. While legislation protects the way data is collected, stored, processed and managed, and therefore goes some way to assuring people that their information is safe, we need to go beyond the legal requirements to establish confidence in our data handling.

The good news is that many examples already exist of how we’re effectively and safely sharing data the above in other parts of the industry. Now, we need to apply the technology – and associated processes and protections – to our borders and we can truly realise the benefits.

Richard Gutsell – Client Director – Borders, Identity and the Digital Economy at Atkins