By TERI SCHULTZ
BRUSSELS — Enthusiasm was muted when the European Commission’s “Smart Borders” package was first presented in February 2013. It was touted by the Commission as a way to “enhance mobility and security” regarding the travel of third-country nationals entering the Schengen zone, and a tool to fight irregular migration and better track those people overstaying their visas. But many in the EU, and particularly members of the European Parliament (EP), were reluctant to pursue the increased border controls due in part to its perceived high-cost/low-value ratio and privacy concerns about the retention of data collected.
But after the murderous jihadist-driven events of 2015 – the Charlie Hebdo killings of January, various terrorist plots in Belgium, the failed shooting spree in August on a high-speed train and the multiple attacks in Paris in November – that reluctance is now out the window, along with a reversal of attitudes about the crucial necessity for biometric checks.
Indeed, long-dormant security-related initiatives are now revivifying. The long-stalled Passenger Name Record system has suddenly navigated its way through the parliamentary Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) and is on its way to full legislative approval in early 2016. A substantial new package of measures to beef up Frontex, the EU’s external borders agency, was unveiled on 15 December and is expected to get rapid approval. Above all, Smart Borders look set to follow an accelerated path as well.
Conveniently, the results of a recently completed Smart Borders pilot project in border control support the Smart Borders’ concept.
Launched in Lisbon in March 2015 by “eu-LISA”, the EU agency that manages Schengen’s large-scale IT databases and other security and justice-related systems, the project oversaw the first-ever processing of travellers from 20 different third-countries through an automated border control (ABC) gates.
Completed in November, the project’s results were presented to LIBE during its 7 December meeting by eu-LISA Director Krum Garkov. The project’s scope involved 18 air, land, and maritime border-crossing points in a dozen countries. More than 58,000 passengers from 110 countries voluntarily participated, alongside 350 border guards. One hundred different questions were addressed, Garkov said, to “outline the most suitable and feasible technical solutions that facilitate a positive border control process”.
With such a wide sample size, Garkov said the results are “conclusive and representative” in providing a complete picture about the effects and benefits of Smart Borders measures.
Regarding biometric identifiers, he said it was possible to take fingerprints (FPs) using four, eight or 10 fingers with “no differences” between the type of borders or quality of information. However, the different FP sets do modulate the “border-crossing experience” due to the extra time required. The delay is doubled between four- and eight-FP testing and tripled with 10-FP testing.
As for facial bio-data, he said the capture of a live image of an arriving passenger and its comparison against a passport photo is “feasible and fast at all border types”, even when using a simple webcam. Similarly, the sampling of a traveller’s two iris patterns is also technically feasible, he added, though obtaining high-quality samples is more difficult outdoors or if the subject is elderly or Asian. For the latter cases, Garkov advised that the technology “is not yet mature enough to provide the same outputs on all types of borders”.
Elsewhere, Garkov said the feedback from border guards and travellers was encouraging. “More than 80 percent [of travellers] were positive about the overall experience” he said, adding that border guards were also pleased with the results. “The overall attitude was that the new technologies really facilitate efficiency and add value” to the envisioned procedures, he said.
But eu-LISA wasn’t the only entity seeking feedback. The EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) also asked 1,234 participants – evenly divided by gender – what they thought about the measures. Garkov relayed those findings too, namely that the “majority of travellers don’t believe the use of biometrics at borders is something that compromises their fundamental rights, privacy and dignity”.
Rob Rozenburg, the Commission’s head of unit for “Information Systems for Borders and Security”, expressed high satisfaction with the results of both exercises by eu-LISA and FRA. His policy unit is now redrafting the original Smart Borders proposal in hopes of getting it approved during the first-half of 2016, with the updated package to be introduced in March.
However, he added the Commission must now investigate the results’ legal, financial, organisational and political implications. Any revised Smart Borders proposal will have to deal with data retention and the access of law enforcement authorities to the data, he noted.
Questions remain whether EU citizens themselves will be so accepting of Smart Border controls as the volunteers from third-countries were, especially now that EU interior ministers agreed on 20 November that all travellers – and not just third-country ones – will be subject to border measures.
The scheme could also bump up against the perennial challenge of inter-EU cooperation: collecting data by individual governments is of limited use unless they share it. The debacle of the post-Paris investigations showed that national authorities acknowledged, after the fact, that suspects on another member state’s watch list had been detected and allowed to pass a border. Thus, Smart Border proponents should bear in mind that the mere ability to scan travellers’ eyeballs is not a security solution on its own.