Smarter Borders – technology trends in a time of crisis

The COVID-19 crisis is an unprecedented global event that will shape our world for many years to come. The human and economic impacts of this crisis have been severe and the interruption to global travel and migration have been near total. In the past years, Smart Bordershave already played a significant role in enabling the movement of people and goods on a global scale, while ensuring the security and safety of nation states. But can they also play an integral role in overcoming the worst aspects of the COVID-19 crisis?

In our view, the answer is an unequivocal yes. Smart Borders will play an increasingly important role in this, to mitigate risks for safety and health. They can enable our globalised economy to recover and to fulfil the human need for experiences on a global scale. However, providing this contribution is not a self-serving prophecy. To play this role, the processes and technologies of our borders need to rebuild the trust in the travellers crossing the borders and at the same time reduce the need for mandatory quarantines around the world. This will require further refinement and upgrade of our current approach – in short, our borders have to become even smarter.

In this article, we want to focus on some of the key enabling technologies that may support this in the future. It is worthwhile to first take a look back. Two drivers of the smart border paradigm have been biometrics and integrated border IT systems. The integration of biometrics into travel documents and during entry and exit checks significantly reduce the risk of malicious parties crossing borders with faked or fraudulent travel documents. This is supported by strong cryptography infrastructures that protect not only the integrity of the information between travel documents and border IT, but also the privacy of the traveller. A second key technology is the continued integration of border IT systems. Modern border posts can query, in fractions of a second, the presented travel documents against national and international systems that may have flagged this particular traveller. The collected information supports the border guards in taking more informed decisions at the front lines. Notably, there was only a limited focus on the global health crisis in the deployment of these systems. So what are the up and coming technologies that would enable borders to fulfil their role in overcoming the COVID-19 crisis?

Previous global health events, particularly the 2013 SARS epidemic, have already led some countries to adapt additional technology at the borders. Airports, in particular in SE Asia have been applying thermal cameras to identify persons that may have a fever to administer additional checks. Already in the first months of the COVID-19 crisis, we have seen initial technology initiatives that may provide a first view on borders post-COVID-19. In our view, there are three key technology trends in the near future that can help us regain trust and create even Smarter Borders.

At first we shall look at biometric scanners. Currently, primarily cameras are used for face recognition at eGates or border posts. The main type of fingerprint scanners are four-finger flat scanners. We see a trend towards contactless and multi-sensory biometric scanners. Due to hygienic reasons, speed and user preference, not only face, but also fingerprints and iris will be increasingly captured over a distance, thus significantly reducing the risk of contamination. A handful of vendors already have contactless fingerprint scanners on the market and many more are in active research and development, including handheld devices for mobile-border guards. Travellers are likely to prefer the contactless options and they should become a more common sight. The second factor are multimodal devices that not only focus on capturing the biometrics, but include additional sensors, e.g. thermal imaging to detect body temperature, or wider field cameras to apply behaviour analytics. An analysis of press releases between March and early May of 2020 shows that more than 10 vendors of biometric systems are planning to release or integrate new thermal imaging products in the near future. This will support borders in creating more integrated and cost-effective solutions and further facilitate the efficiency of border controls.

There are concerns when it comes to more advanced sensor technologies, particularly in the scope of data that they can collect, e.g. health information that may lead to discrimination. Regulatory and privacy concerns have to be met, when implementing those systems.

The second technology is the increasing trend towards real-time data aggregation and AI-supported risk assessment. Current travel authorisation systems, such as ESTA, are not sufficiently equipped to deal with fast-paced events, such as COVID-19. Authorisations are valid for long periods, and real-time information, such as travel to a particularly affected area are only considered on a by-case basis. The systems will have to become more agile in this regard, taking into account additional data sources, e.g. from health passes or larger health systems. Taiwan, for example, integrated immigration and health databases, to give clinics and pharmacies alerts, if a client was traveling to a high-risk zone, to aid in diagnosis and find appropriate containment measures. Increased availability of data requires increased capacities in decision-support systems for border authorities. AI is a key enabling technology that can support experts in assessing this vast amount of information and increasingly complex regulation on risk assessment.
Border agencies, airports and ports may require not only regulatory guidance, but also support in establishing systems and processes that realise the benefits of those technologies, while minimising the risks of abuse. Appropriate design can help balance privacy and efficiency.

The third technology trend is a more advanced integrated border management that increasingly leverages mobile technologies. Currently, there are already more than 3.5 billion smartphone users in the world. The sensors and connectivity facilities of these devices can be leveraged to prevent the spreading of diseases and to support local regulation that might temporarily restrict movement. A significant talking point of the last weeks has been around contact tracing apps and QR code systems for access to specific areas. Technology-affine South East Asian countries, such as Singapore and South Korea, have rapidly applied those technologies for combatting COVID-19. The increased mobility of border guards should also not be discounted. Mobile terminal systems can be augmented by contactless technologies and additional sensors, to capture the same level of information as stationary border posts.

The potential for abuse of those large-scale information collection systems is however of great concern. Governments need to ensure that the public‘s trust in those solutions is warranted. There is a significant risk of abusing these highly detailed movement profiles by malicious actors. Their application has to be carefully considered and must be accompanied by strong regulation and independent oversight. The European Commission takes a careful approach in their regulation on Smart Borders, providing detailed purposes and procedures around the management of personal data, and about detailed monitoring of the systems, to detect potential abuse swiftly. Governments, their agencies, and large organisations should foster the expertise and best practice that has been collected by the practitioners in the field over the last years, to ensure secure and privacy-preserving implementation of those systems.

So when can we expect those technologies to play a leading role? Without consulting a crystal ball this is an impossible question to answer. We can observe a difference in speeds when it comes to implementation between different global regions. There are certain measures to be taken that may accelerate the adoption in even more territories.

· Embedding technologies and processes is key. Just acquiring new systems, without ensuring that they can contribute as intended, is a major factor for failed technology projects. Simulating the user journeys on the different touchpoints and assessing various scenarios are key factors for the successful integration.

· Evaluating and managing the risks around smarter border technologies requires the close collaboration of regulators, agencies and experts. They should adopt a forward-thinking approach that is not merely reactive, but proactively paves a way for the more complex challenges around those technologies.

· Training and informing the key stakeholders is important as always, new technologies require new skills and an upskilling of the workforce can´t start early enough. Travellers can be provided in advance with information on how to use those new systems, what is expected from them, potentially leveraging the mobile-first paradigm.

· Global cooperation might be the most important aspect of all. The national instinct to close down the borders first and evaluate afterwards, may have contributed to the severity of the crisis. Interoperability is not only needed on the level of technology, but also on the level of processes and regulation.
The COVID-19 crisis is still in its early stages. The long-term effects are still difficult to assess, and we don’t know yet how the new normal is going to look like. Smarter borders can and should play a significant role in how quickly and how sustainably we are going to recover. The community needs to play a significant part in taking the opportunity within the crisis and rebuilding the trust of citizens around the world.

Serge Hanssens is Partner within PwC Advisory. Serge is specialised in Biometrics technologies, customer experience, EU and local information systems.
Andreas Braun is a Senior Manager in the Smart Identity practice with a focus on Biometrics, Secure Infrastructures and AI.