The border that currently separates Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland continues to be a fundamental sticking point in the ongoing Brexit negotiations. Could the use of cutting-edge security technology provide a workable solution that avoids a hard border? Alistair Enser examines the issues involved.
In broad terms there are many technologies available which could, in principle, either support or enable a soft border. To what extent technology’s employed in this instance is a question of risk and robustness versus freedom and privacy (ie a more robust border will generally need more technology, which may or may not be more visible or more ‘intrusive’ in nature).
With this in mind, a fundamental question to address is whether or not technology would be acceptable from a political, diplomatic or residential perspective? The answer is debatable. Additionally, given the complexity of a 310-mile open border, could the technology be designed, mobilised, interfaced and fully implemented before the end of October? That’s highly improbable.
Where there’s general agreement (and where the subject of the backstop is often debated) is around the protection and continuation of an ‘open’ or ‘frictionless’ Irish border, and how that would look in practical terms.
This is neither the time nor the place to reiterate the positions of the two sides embroiled in this debate, but it’s clear that the Irish border is a matter of great political, diplomatic and security-based sensitivity. Any proposals put forward shouldn’t threaten the hard-won, 20-year peace process or jeopardise the Good Friday Agreement. When all’s said and done, there’s clearly no easy answer to this situation.
Put simply, outside of the backstop there are three options: the border remains as is (which contravenes European legislation), it becomes a hard border (which is severely problematic for the UK, Ireland and their residents) or it becomes a soft border employing a mix of openness, technology and, potentially, some strategically manned points.
This third option doesn’t come without significant challenges, of course. It would require compromise, trust and a willingness to manage attitudes on all sides, but it also does provide options.
Setting the scene
In the event of the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union (EU), the 310-mile Irish border will become the only land border between the EU and the UK. The land boundary has around 200 crossing points with an estimated 177,000 lorries, 208,000 commercial vehicles and 1.85 million cars passing across every month, in addition to the estimated 30,000 people who move between the countries on a daily basis.
On a positive note, the main perceived risks and challenges are confined to this land border, while the mainland UK and mainland Europe are naturally protected courtesy of the Irish Sea.
Post-Brexit, under current legislation some checks and controls will need to be in place for many reasons. These include managing the flow of controlled or commercial goods for the purpose of collecting tax and duty. Additionally, the flow of people between the UK and Europe will need a degree of control for the purposes of migration and security. Let’s not forget that these borders are open today and we already manage the existing challenge of differing tax and duty rates between the North and South. However, what could change post-Brexit is the perceived increase in economic, political and security risk posed by, for example, smuggling and crime.
Reinstating the ‘watch towers’ that were previously removed in 2007, or using the police or other security agencies, would certainly not be ‘frictionless’ and could well create further risk and unrest, while also impeding the freedoms of the current residents who today cross the border freely.
What, then, is the alternative? One mooted solution to this issue – which wouldn’t require the installation of customs guards, checkpoints, ‘watch towers’, border patrols or additional infrastructure – is the use of technology.
Not surprisingly, there are those for and against this option and technology’s ability to create an invisible or ‘frictionless’ digital border. The opposition view is perhaps best summed up by Sadhbh McCarthy of the Centre for Irish and European Security who calls it “complete nonsense” and adds: “It’s one of these things that. if people say it often enough. it starts to sound like something that could work”.
Point of order
Others would politely disagree with McCarthy’s view. From a hypothetical standpoint, technology certainly exists to create a ‘smart’ border and there are numerous examples all over the world where this has been achieved, such as between the USA and Canada, Israel and Palestine and Norway and Sweden.
It’s the latter example that points one way forward. The 1,000 miles separating Norway and Sweden represents the EU’s longest land border, yet vehicles can travel from one nation to the other through unmanned border posts equipped with cameras using ANPR software. Meanwhile, goods can be declared to customs before they leave warehouses via a computer-based ‘trusted trader’ system.
Where this concept meets resistance with regards to the Irish situation is due to the fact that lorries transporting goods between Norway and Sweden and vice-versa must still stop at a manned crossing for physical customs checks. It has been suggested that a way of avoiding this could be to develop a global positioning system-based solution, whereby drivers’ smart phones are linked to a satellite. When their trucks pass the border they’re then automatically registered. The EU remains dismissive of this suggestion, though, with its deputy chief negotiator Sabine Weyand stating: “We’ve looked at every border on this Earth. Every border the EU has with a third country. There’s simply no way you can do away with checks and controls.”
Another option is to combine ‘trusted traders’, ANPR and analytics, such that the system allows cars, members of the general public and trusted vehicles unimpeded access, while requiring other vehicles (by exception) to pass through a manned checkpoint. Should the analytics recognise an unregistered lorry passing the open border, the system could then create an exception alert and response, such as a police intervention.
Furthermore, as the whole of Ireland is surrounded by water, it could also be possible to cross-reference through a shared database those mainland UK and mainland Europe vehicles which enter from a port and then cross the land border illegitimately.
Emerging technologies such as Artificial Intelligence, social media, mobile phones, the Internet of Things and biometrics could also play a greater role in border management, and particularly so when considering whether an individual has crossed the border. In reality, the majority of us are already tracked on a daily basis through these mediums or sensor points.
Likewise, software analytics can automatically identify trends, objects, behaviours or even people (through facial recognition) by matching them to known ‘watch lists’ which then triggers an event such as a camera feed for human review/intervention.
That said, facial recognition technology isn’t without its detractors. For their part, civil liberties groups including Big Brother Watch are increasingly vocal in their concern that it threatens freedoms, gathers information without consent, invades privacy and has the potential to wrongly identify individuals.
San Francisco has already banned its use, while a furore erupted recently when it emerged that a property developer had been using facial recognition in King’s Cross. This reopened a debate about facial recognition’s use by private companies in public spaces and the lack of ability for individuals to request their removal from databases.
In addition, it has prompted the Information Commissioner’s Office to look into how facial recognition technology is being operated to ensure its use doesn’t break data protection laws such as the EU’s own General Data Protection Regulation. Facial recognition technology’s use at the Irish border could potentially be a very sensitive issue and is highly likely to be met with some degree of resistance.
Issues of trust
Even though facial recognition technology is under great scrutiny at the moment, it’s worth remembering that this is only one of many ‘evils’ in some eyes. People are already being monitored and recorded by a huge network of overt and covert surveillance technology. Mobile phone operators, for instance, are able to track movements and the location of individuals at any given time.
As with any of these technologies, the key is the appropriate collection and use of the data. Where possible, only exceptions should be collected and recorded, while any potential bias from software analytics should be verified by human operators before action is taken, thus allowing law abiding members of the public to go about their daily business in freedom.
That said, it’s clear the use of any solution using technology and data would require not only a significant PR exercise, but also co-operation, trust and even a degree of close regulatory alignment between the EU and the UK in terms of data sharing.
Freedom of movement and residence for individuals in the EU is the very cornerstone of membership and citizens of Member State nations currently have the right to live and work in the UK. The UK Government has announced that Irish citizens will continue to have the right to enter and remain in the UK, as they do now, and will not be required to protect their status. However, recent pronouncements suggest that new Home Secretary Priti Patel is planning to impose border restrictions with the EU immediately on 31 October so this may complicate matters somewhat.
Either way, to ensure Ireland doesn’t become a gateway to the mainland UK or mainland Europe, there will need to be some element of data sharing. The respective Governments and politicians on both sides of the divide need to decide how they’re prepared to work together to avoid the need for more rigorous border checks. Technology could certainly be used to provide a viable method of monitoring and controlling immigration, yet whether this will be considered socially and/or politically acceptable is debatable. As mentioned, there are bound to be some who vehemently oppose its adoption.
Northern Ireland’s history of political conflict continues to loom large over the Brexit process. While the EU holds the firm opinion that the current backstop plan is the only way in which to prevent a hard border between Northern Ireland and Eire, it’s unfortunate that other solutions, such as technology, are not being more openly discussed.
While all of us often debate the negative connotations of ‘Big Brother’, the use of technology, data and intelligence – when deployed correctly – could, ironically, be the key to retaining freedoms and civil liberties.
Alistair Enser is CEO at Reliance High-Tech