Passive Terahertz Technology Enables International Customs Agencies to Fill a Critical Gap in Border Security

By Colin Evans, Chief Executive of Thruvision. Thruvision has over 250 passive terahertz people screening units in operational service around the world.

Due to a lack of viable technology solutions, screening of pedestrians at ports of entry has often been a lower priority, while customs and border security agencies have relied on screening technologies to inspect baggage, vehicles, mail and cargo containers for illicit goods and contraband. As a result, pedestrian-based smuggling of items such as currency, opioids, narcotics and other illicit items is a point of vulnerability for border security and customs enforcement.

Customs agencies face a growing tide of illicit trade and smuggling
As the global economy has evolved, cross-border trade, travel and migration has increased dramatically.

According to the World Trade Organization, for example, the value of cross-border trade increased from $10 trillion in 2010 to over $17 trillion in 2017 – a 70% increase in less than 10 years.

At the same time, international tourist and business travel arrivals increased from approximately 800 million to 1.4 billion – a 75% increase.

Permanent cross-border migration has also risen, from 107 million persons in 2010 to 130 million persons in 2019.

International customs and border security agencies are on the frontline of resulting challenges that include an increase in smuggling of goods and contraband to evade customs duty collection, as well as criminal trafficking in weapons, currency, and narcotics.

Recent data from the World Customs Organization (WCO) and other sources highlights the magnitude and growth of these smuggling activities:

Narcotics and Opioids: Increases in seizures range from 8% (Cannabis) to Opiates (30%). Currency; the United Nations estimates that approximately $870 billion in illegal cross-border currency flows were tied to criminal activity. Contraband; the WCO reports that seizures of the most common types of smuggled goods increased by more than 23% between 2016 to 2017.

“Pedestrian” Smuggling of Contraband: A Serious Problem
Because most smuggled goods are transported by vehicles of some type: trucks, cars, rail, air cargo, and maritime transport, customs agencies have focused their inspection staff and technologies on these modes of transportation. Investments of millions of dollars for large, high-energy X-Ray systems that can scan vehicles, cargo containers and even moving rail cars are dedicated. In addition, many customs agencies perform periodic inspections of baggage at airports, seaports and in some cases, land-border crossings, using checkpoint X-Ray systems.

Routine screening of people, on the other hand, to detect concealed contraband and threats has not been as widespread in the customs environment. In some ways this is understandable. Vehicles can transport much larger quantities of all types of illicit goods, compared to an individual pedestrian, and using traditional security checkpoint screening approaches to check large volumes of people in a very short period of time, i.e. during flight arrivals or at high-traffic land border crossings, is almost impossible to implement.

Nevertheless, there is evidence that the lack of people screening is a serious gap in customs enforcement and border security. For example, for narcotics, opioids, currency, precious metals, and other high value goods, pedestrian-based smuggling is common and, in some regions, represents approximately 20% of the volume of seizures made. Considering the impact that such smuggling can have, this represents a major problem that needs to be addressed.

Unique Challenges in Tackling Pedestrian Smuggling and Customs Evasion
There are several factors that make it challenging for customs and border security agencies to tackle pedestrian-based smuggling of illicit goods, and in turn impact customs inspection technology solutions that can be deployed.

First, each point of entry – land border crossing, airport, or seaport – can have different characteristics in terms of types of pedestrian traffic, peak volumes, and real estate available to support screening operations.

Second, pedestrian “non-compliance” is a serious problem. Unlike airport security checkpoints, where only a tiny fraction of travellers pose a potential security threat, and virtually all persons comply with screening protocols, smuggling by pedestrians is endemic in the customs and border security environment. Smugglers vary from travelers over-stepping their duty-free allowance, to sophisticated crime gangs smuggling for material gain, to “innocents” being coerced into running drugs across a border. To make matters worse for customs agencies, professional smugglers change their tactics in response to new border security measures. In practice, this means customs agencies must evolve their security processes faster than these sophisticated criminals.

Finally, the type of contraband being smuggled can change over time and can include an incredibly wide range of items – from adulterated baby formula, through counterfeit smartphones, to weapons, currency, gold, and narcotics.

These challenges have important implications for potential technology solutions. Customs agencies need pedestrian screening solutions that can support both detection and deterrence. They need to be able to operate at high visibility fixed checkpoints (for example, a land border crossing) and at random ‘mobile’ checkpoints (for example on an air bridge as passengers leave an aircraft). Covert screening, with appropriate legal safeguards, is also an important approach for covering known smuggling locations.

Available People Screening Technologies for Customs and Border Security
To meet these requirements, international customs and border security agencies have several potential technology solutions at their disposal:

“Walk through” metal detectors – a mature, relatively inexpensive technology, but which cannot detect non-metallic items such as narcotics, opioids, paper currency and other non-metallic contraband;

“Stand inside” active millimeter wave scanners – used in airport checkpoints, these offer proven detection performance but are large, immobile, with low throughput and no covert inspection capability;

“Detection at Range” passive terahertz cameras – a new, but already proven pedestrian inspection technology that has been successfully deployed by customs agencies worldwide. Passive terahertz technology provides high throughput while being comparable in threat detection performance to “stand-inside” scanners. In addition, the technology can support covert screening, is compact and is highly deployable.

Selecting the Most Appropriate Pedestrian Screening Technology
How can a customs or border security agency determine which of these solutions best fits their people screening requirements? The following are common-sense criteria based on our experience working with international customs departments worldwide.

Proven, Independently Validated Detection Performance
Proven threat detection performance is the most important criteria. After all, any people screening solution can achieve excellent throughput – if it does not detect concealed items on a consistent basis. While all people screening systems claim excellent detection capabilities, customs officials need to consider what types of contraband and illicit goods they are targeting and ask detailed questions:

  • Has the system been evaluated by US Department of Homeland Security, generally considered the “gold standard” for security testing?
  • Which other customs and border security agencies are using the technology?
  • Does it detect non-metallic items, such as opioids, narcotics and paper currency?
    Health, Safety, and Privacy

From a public and operator acceptance standpoint, health safety and privacy are important considerations. “Stand inside” body scanners, used in airport security checkpoints, have struggled to gain broader market acceptance in part because they “actively” emit radiation during the screening process to create a high-resolution image of the person screened. And like walk-through metal detectors, these systems can require a physical inspection or “pat down” to resolve an alarm.

By contrast, people screening solutions that use passive terahertz technology, emit no radiation, making employee health and safety concerns a non-issue. Thermal contrast between the heat emitted by a person’s body and objects concealed in a person’s clothing is measured. This information is presented as the outline of a person from which a customs official cannot distinguish the age, gender or ethnicity of the individual in question, but does allow operators to see, in real-time, the size, shape and location of concealed objects. This is an especially important benefit considering that smugglers may hide contraband in their groin area. This safety and privacy enhancing capability reduces false alarms and enables non-intrusive, no-touch ‘virtual pat-downs’. Individuals can remove and show any suspicious concealed item without a physical search.

Flexibility of Operation
Being able to support a wide number of concepts of operation in a range of different environments is critical for tackling the range of different types of smuggler.

Combining the use of high visibility fixed, and mobile ‘pop-up’ inspection checkpoints offers an effective mix of deterrence and detection. The technology solution used needs to be flexible enough to be used at land pedestrian border crossing points, for screening coach passengers as they disembark at a border, in cruise liner and high-speed railway terminals, at other ferry ports, and in a range of different locations in airports including at point of disembarkation from the aircraft, at immigration desks, in secondary inspection areas, and at baggage reclaim areas.

Passive terahertz technology, is used by international Customs agencies in each of these environments, resulting in seizures every day.

To support legitimate trade and commerce, ports of entry need to handle large volumes of people quickly. Long, airport-style queues are just impractical. In order to be effective, screening technologies need to help customs officers quickly find “unusual” concealments, generally items that given their position on the body, are clearly not in pockets and therefore suspicious, in overt or covert screening applications.

Particular passive terahertz technologies allow customs and border security staff to see the size, shape and location of concealed items and determine if the concealed item needs further investigation. Because of this capability, one company, Thruvision, has logged throughput at up to 600 pedestrians per hour.

Return on Investment Via Seizures
A critical measure of customs inspection technology is its ability to increase seizures of smuggled and illicit goods. Passive terahertz technology has demonstrated this capability in actual deployments by international customs agencies. For example, its ability to detect even small quantities of high value narcotics and opioids concealed on a pedestrian at a port of entry differentiates it from all other potential inspection technologies.

Passive terahertz technology has a smaller physical footprint than active millimeter wave systems, can be battery-powered, and is easily moved to meet changing security requirements. It requires fewer staff than other solutions – in many configurations, a single person can both operate the system and resolve alarms quickly.

Helping International Customs Agencies Meet the Pedestrian Screening Challenge
Customs and border security agencies worldwide have the dual challenge of a growth in pedestrian-based smuggling a wide range of contraband including drugs, paper currency, weapons and other illicit items, with the need to handle ever rising volumes of people crossing their borders.

Until recently, there have been no cost-effective people screening technologies to address these requirements. However, the emergence of passive terahertz people screening technology, offers customs agencies an operationally proven solution that is safe and affordable. This type of technology has been successfully deployed for customs, border security and other people screening applications in 20 countries around the world.