Biometrics at the Borders

Isabelle Moeller

Isabelle Moeller

While policy creation for the use of biometric technologies at national borders remains a matter for Government, it’s fair to state that Best Practice and guiding principles for their effective deployment can be built through collaboration between the industry’s various and many global stakeholders. That’s the considered opinion of Isabelle Moeller

Over the last decade or so, biometric technologies have rapidly evolved to become cheaper, more accurate, smaller and easier to use, all of which combines to make the technology that much more attractive when it comes to field biometric implementations. That said, it’s the recent wave of consumer devices and apps incorporating biometrics that’s driving the general public’s willingness to use and embrace them.

The commercial future of biometrics technology is also predicted to be bright. A Kiplinger investment newsletter predicted: “Look for more companies to use facial recognition for enhanced security, such as granting access to secure buildings, offices or computers. Facial biometrics will grow rapidly over the coming years, though not as fast as the sales of iris recognition solutions or the top seller, namely fingerprint biometrics.”

When it comes to the adoption of biometric technologies at national borders around the world, some important questions are inevitably raised. National security and personal privacy sit at the very heart of the debate, of course, but there’s much more to it than this. The speed and efficiency of border checks together with the cost of deployment and the accuracy and reliability of the technologies themselves are also key factors that weigh heavily on the minds of border agencies across the globe.

Although biometrics undoubtedly represent a valuable addition to the evaluation of human identity, every biometric has vulnerabilities which must be carefully managed when the technologies are being deployed and the resultant data is used.

The advantages and benefits that can be gained by conducting biometric checks in the border control environment are considerable. Each border works differently, of course, but when compared to traditional manual border controls, few would contest that the security process can be enhanced with biometric technology, be that through the comparison of the face (beyond the traditional visual review of a passport photo), a fingerprint, the iris or another biometric ‘modality’.

The arguments for using biometrics to enhance the speed and facility of border controls are also compelling. Replacing six officer-manned passport manual control gates, for example, with six automated e-gates supervised by one officer will enable international border controls to scale up their operations at peak travel times, reducing delays and responding to traffic fluctuations much faster than can be achieved by training and deploying individual officers in the conventional manner. The e-gate model also promises to reduce the operational costs of border management quite considerably.

What’s more, the capture and/or the exchange of an individual’s biometric data between countries – and, indeed, domestic authorities – enables additional checks to be conducted before that individual reaches the port of entry or the border control point. Here, the biometric identity can be used in post-entry scenarios to control access to services and even for verifying compliance and departure.

Such practices require Governments to align on biometric data management policy which is currently far from consistent between nations but, nonetheless, has the potential to reduce the risk of a suspicious individual passing undetected through immigration and customs. It may also substantially cut the delays travellers experience at the border, since many of the required checks will have already been performed in advance.

Uncertainty and risk

There are fears, too, of course, particularly among implementing Governments. For the most part, it must be said that those fears focus in the main on uncertainty and risk.

Putting aside the creation of national policy to determine how biometric data at the borders around the world is captured, stored and exchanged – a debate that sits right at the very heart of Government – it’s important to acknowledge that all biometric technologies are fallible, including those deployed by border agencies. In this way, biometric technologies should be considered as one layer in a multi-layered security environment.

For their part, solution vendors have finite resources to test their solutions. Hackers and fraudsters are perpetually probing and testing in a bid to identify and exploit weaknesses. Simulated deployments invariably deliver different results to those generated by a solution which is live ‘in the field’. Significant ‘live’ trials are required before real-world data can be collected. Such trials can disrupt border operations and cost taxpayers millions.

In short, failure can come in various forms, but is always both expensive and unpopular.

There’s also a ‘knowledge gap’ to consider. By definition, Government authorities are not biometric technology specialists and can neither understand nor account for every potential vulnerability. Instead, they must trust in the models proposed by academics, brought to life by vendors and, at least in part, managed by service providers.

It’s worth remembering here that the check-in process at an airport – the first step in the border security chain – is managed by the airlines, not the border agencies themselves.

What we can be sure of, however, is that the use of biometric technologies at national borders has arrived and is now in a perpetual state of evolution. Academics will continue to innovate, vendors will continue to sell and Governments will continue to buy.

Mitigating the risk

What, then, can the global biometrics ecosystem do to mitigate the risk and uncertainty felt by border agencies and their Governments? Clearly, lawmakers can and should continue to debate the moral and ethical questions that underpin their national policies for biometric data collection, storage, interrogation and dissemination.

Aiming for universal consistency across policy, deployment approach and international border co-operation is far too big an ‘ask’. Different countries have different motivations for introducing biometrics, which in turn direct their strategies and define their appetite – or the lack of one – for shared border engagement with other nations. Beyond this, though, there are easy wins that can be obtained through international stakeholder collaboration.

By bringing together Government agencies, vendors, academics, specialist consultants, privacy advocates and industry watchdogs in a commercially neutral environment, problems and concerns can be explored and addressed through the sharing of expertise, ‘live’ field data, use cases and deployment experience.

When convened, these stakeholders can work together for the benefit of the whole market, establishing Best Practice for secure and responsible deployment, for example, and working towards defining a set of guiding principles which can support the collaborative efforts of Governments and vendors alike.

Happily, this work is already underway, but there’s much more that can be done.

The Border and Travel Major Programmes expert group within The Biometrics Institute is an international group of border agencies, vendors and academics which exists to facilitate dialogue, exchange information and keep its members appraised of major border system projects currently underway. The group has evolved from Government-only meetings to encompass a wide range of international experts, decision-makers and influencers.

Enhancements to security

Biometric technology will continue to play a major part in the development of future immigration and border controls, affording border agencies process efficiencies, enhancing security and making the border experience more traveller-friendly.

Using these sensitive personal identifiers, however, requires an effective privacy ecosystem wherein the data is protected and where its usage is disclosed through the enforcement of robust retention policies.

Only through collaboration between control agencies and technology suppliers can the industry develop the mutually beneficial guiding principles and Best Practice that will drive the development of borders capable of supporting the growth in global travel despite the increases in complexity and risk posed to us all by 21st Century living.

Isabelle Moeller MA is Chief Executive of The Biometrics Institute

About the Author
Brian Sims BA (Hons) Hon FSyI, Editor, Risk UK (Pro-Activ Publications) Beginning his career in professional journalism at The Builder Group in March 1992, Brian was appointed Editor of Security Management Today in November 2000 having spent eight years in engineering journalism across two titles: Building Services Journal and Light & Lighting. In 2005, Brian received the BSIA Chairman’s Award for Promoting The Security Industry and, a year later, the Skills for Security Special Award for an Outstanding Contribution to the Security Business Sector. In 2008, Brian was The Security Institute’s nomination for the Association of Security Consultants’ highly prestigious Imbert Prize and, in 2013, was a nominated finalist for the Institute's George van Schalkwyk Award. An Honorary Fellow of The Security Institute, Brian serves as a Judge for the BSIA’s Security Personnel of the Year Awards and the Securitas Good Customer Award. Between 2008 and 2014, Brian pioneered the use of digital media across the security sector, including webinars and Audio Shows. Brian’s actively involved in 50-plus security groups on LinkedIn and hosts the popular Risk UK Twitter site. Brian is a frequent speaker on the conference circuit. He has organised and chaired conference programmes for both IFSEC International and ASIS International and has been published in the national media. Brian was appointed Editor of Risk UK at Pro-Activ Publications in July 2014 and as Editor of The Paper (Pro-Activ Publications' dedicated business newspaper for security professionals) in September 2015. Brian was appointed Editor of Risk Xtra at Pro-Activ Publications in May 2018.

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