Viewpoint: COVID-19: from "smart" to "smarter" borders?

An article in Border Security Report, a magazine aimed at those from the public and private sectors working on border security, argues that the COVID-19 pandemic will accelerate the adoption of "smarter" borders and that three key technologies that will underpin the shift. Can ever-more intrusive data-gathering and processing provide a way out of lockdowns and quarantines? If it could, would it be desirable?

The article, written two employees of international consultancy firm PwC, argues that "biometrics and integrated border IT systems" have propelled the "smart border" paradigm, which has "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."

The "smart border" paradigm is the basis for the recovery of global travel and trade in a post-pandemic world, according to the authors, but:

"...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."

How is this to be done? There are apparently three key technologies involved.

1. Upgraded biometric 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."

However, biometrics are not the end of the story. The article also predicts the adoption of:

"...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."

Of course, 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." Quite how these concerns will be addressed is not specified.

2. Real-time data and artificial intelligence (AI)

The second technology highlighted in the article is "the increased trend towards real-time data aggregation and AI-supported risk assessment," in relation to which it calls for more frequent, invasive screening of travellers.

One problem is that "travel authorisations" - such as the USA's ESTA system, or the EU's forthcoming European Travel Information and Authorisation System (ETIAS) - are currently valid for long periods, but "real-time information, such as travel to a particularly affected area are only considered on a by-case basis."

The authors cite Taiwan, which has apparently "integrated immigration and health databases, to give clinics and pharmacies alerts, if a client was traveling to a high-risk one, to aid in diagnosis and find appropriate containment measures."

However, if the authorities are to start hoovering up more data on travellers, they will need to find ways to deal with it - and this is where "artificial intelligence" (AI) comes into the picture. This "can support experts in assessing this vast amount of information and increasingly complex regulation on risk assessment," argues the article, with "appropriate design" to "help balance privacy and efficiency."

3. Mobile technologies

Last but not least is the increasing use of 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."

Contact-tracing apps have of course been an ongoing and frequently controversial topic in discussions on ways to address the COVID-19 pandemic. However, mobile technologies should also be increasingly adopted by border agencies, argue the authors: "Mobile terminal systems can be augmented by contactless technologies and additional sensors, to capture the same level of information as stationary border posts."

Possible abuse

The article underscores the significant possibilities of abuse posed by the data-intensive screening of travellers, and points to the EU's "smart border" initiatives - such as the Entry/Exit System (EES) and ETIAS - as good examples. While these systems may well be less intrusive than those deployed in other parts of the world, critics of the EU's data-centric approach to border control may not harbour the same enthusiasm.

From development to deployment

The article argues that it is "impossible" to say when such technologies may actually be widely deployed, despite the signifcant hype surrounding them. Indeed, the EU has been funding the development of controversial high-tech border control technologies - including remote biometrics systems, automated behavioural detection technologies, drones, robots and more - for almost two decades, yet the technological revolution promised has been slow to materialise.

Nevertheless, the article points to a number of ways the process can be accelerated:

  • Ensure the testing and validation of new systems in real-life scenarios, rather than simply acquiring technology without thinking about how it will work in practice;
  • Ensuring the "close collaboration of regulators, agencies and experts" who "should adopt a forward-thinking approach that... proactively paves a way for the more complex challenges around those technologies";
  • Training border guards and other officials and providing information to travellers in advance (many new technologies are, after all, essentially 'self-service' border controls that outsource checks to the traveller, rather than relying on an official to do the work);
  • Finally, global "interoperability" is required not only with regard to technology, "but also on the level of processes and regulation."

"Smarter borders" = more borders

The article ticks all the right boxes for anyone with a vested interest in the ongoing technological upgrading of border controls around the world - and PwC certainly does have such an interest. In this respect, the article is hardly surprising.

The approach put foward points towards ever-cosier relationships between public and private institutions and the adoption of new plans and policies in undemocratic global fora that exclude ordinary people from decision-making, at the same time as subjecting them to ever-more intrusive screening and assessment methods.

Underpinning everything is the idea that new technologies will come to the rescue of 'global mobility' as we once knew it, allowing a return to the trade and travel patterns of the pre-COVID era. What is missing from this analysis is any consideration of how the global economy that the "smart" and "smarter borders" paradigm seeks to safeguard has contributed to the emergence of novel pandemic diseases.

It also fails to acknowledge the massive potential negative impact of proposed 'solutions' to the pandemic such as so-called immunity passports. As pointed out by EDRi, the "dangerous allure of science fiction" masks a lack of clear scientific knowledge about what immunity to COVID-19 really looks like and could introduce new social divisions between the 'had' and 'had-nots'.

Given that national frontiers already play a key role in creating and dividing the world's 'haves' and 'have-nots', it is unsurprising that the world's border-mongers might have little concern for further exacerbating those divisions. It is clear that there is no guarantee of the 'post-COVID' world being a different place, as many are hoping for. Crises are moments of opportunity - and those who already have power are better-placed to take advantage of them. It remains to be seen whether those who would prefer a less-divided 'post-COVID' world will be able turn the situation to their own advantage.

Chris Jones


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