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Creating virtual customs and security checks along Europe’s external borders carries the seed of good and bad developments


TALLINN, Estonia – As the global economy gains steam, debate in Europe is also firing up about the possibilities of creating virtual or “dematerialised” border control procedures to facilitate trade and the movement of travellers across the EU’s borders.

Such dematerialisation would see the removal, as much as possible, of physical checks at a border. However, this would depend overwhelmingly on the data border authorities received in advance of the arrival of people and cargo. While the advantage for global trade of doing this are obvious, such a system would need to come up with answers to two serious problems, said experts at the EU’s annual Security Research Event 2017 here during 14-15 November.

The first would have to ensure the integrity of data received and, for travellers, the right of redress should their data files contain wrong or wrongly attributed information. The second would have to provide a reliable solution for distinguishing between trusted and non-trusted flows of passengers and goods across the EU’s border points.

“Our current system of security checks on people in Europe is relatively stupid because we are trying to push everyone through the same process since we cannot distinguish between persons of interest and all others. Does it matter if you come from a country where an EU visa is needed but you are of no interest from a security point of view? No,” Edgar Buegels, head of R&D at Frontex, the EU’s border control agency, told the conference.

“If Singapore does an exit verification of your data, why couldn’t that be the automatic entry check when you arrive in Frankfurt?  Why does this have to be done twice? Couldn’t that verification be sent ahead to Frankfurt to facilitate your arrival there?” he declared. “Other parts of the world are already looking into this and if Europe wants to be a part of it, it needs to develop the tools to make individual risk assessment possible.”

One step in that direction will be the future “European Travel Information and Authorisation System” (ETIAS). Proposed a year ago by the Commission, ETIAS is set for implementation by 2020.  It will gather information on visa-exempt travellers prior to their arrival in Europe to identify any irregular migration or associated security or public-health risks, and will be similar to extant systems in the USA, Canada, Australia and elsewhere.

Though Beugels termed ETIAS’ intended procedure of having users enter their information on-line “a recipe for disaster”, he also agreed that it will generate useful risk profiles of individual travelers.

One result would be to change the way travelers move through airport security points. “Rather than going through ABC [automated border control] gates, I think there will simply be a corridor that you walk through,” making transit and border crossings much faster, he said. But will depend on the integrity of the personal data that border authorities receive.

“When we consider this idea of dematerialised borders, there are positive and negative aspects,” said, Joanna Goodey, head of the justice department at the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency.

“On the positive side it could help track missing children, guard against human trafficking and eliminate the bias of face-to-face assessments that border guards inherently do – all good things,” she said.

The negative side will depend on the quality of the data that border authorities will have, she argued. “A traveler’s data fields could contain innocent but misleading information such as political persecution listed as a ‘crime’, which could unfairly block their entry into the EU. A dematerialised border would have to offer a quick means of recourse and the possibility for a person to rectify the information.”

Setting up trusted versus non-trusted flows for cargo, though, presents many more difficulties, Frank Heijmann, head of international trade relations at the Netherland’s Customs Administration, told the Tallinn event.

Noting that one-third of all Europe’s cargo passes through his country which will have to process a forecasted 300 million customs declarations by 2020, Heijmann said “the only way to approach it will be to split cargo arrivals into a green flow for trusted traders who are in full compliance with the rules, and a blue flow for unknown traders. Most companies are reliable.  Why treat them the same as the risky ones?”

The Dutch official said the trade world consistently seeks three changes.

One is to push customs control away from the border via dematerialisation of checks. “We should not interfere with their logistical supply chains. That means pushing the check fully back upstream: if China controls and seals the cargo before shipment, then why should it be controlled again at the harbour in Rotterdam?” observed Heijmann.

The second would be to set up the green-vs-blue trade lanes, while the third would see fully coordinated border management, requiring an all-of-government approach to people, cargo, the ship, safety rules and the environment.

“Currently, shippers on average have to submit 56 different authorisations on all these aspects, each with different requirements and deadlines. That alone costs 90 billion euros for industry each year. Why can’t this be streamlined?” said Heijmann.

Leaving aside the complexity of coordinating across so many government agencies within a single country, not to mention across the EU, there is the problem of technology, he said.

“Automated cargo recognition does not exist. We would like something at the loading dock which identifies what each container or package contains. This is the dream. After all, if our GSMs can do face recognition, why can’t we do the same for  cargo? Combining that with predictive analytics that cross-checks all the information, is the kind of smart technology that we want to develop with industry,” he said.

     THE UPSHOT: Dematerialising Europe’s customs and security procedures along its external borders will only work if “smart analysis” is as advanced as the inspection/verification technologies deployed. Because of the overwhelming volumes involved, virtual borders where people and goods flow quickly can only be done effectively by risk-assessment analytics. The latter will have to flawlessly cross-check anomalies to sift out innocuous hiccups in a data file from the indicators of real threats. And that will depend on the sophistication of the algorithms used.
     According to Goodey, 40 percent of all cases that hold up travelers at the border involve simple missing or incorrect alphanumeric data – things as simple as a misspelled name. Combined algorithmic/biometric analysis for purposes of identification is advancing fast and that will surely handle the task with a minimum of glitches in the future.
     The more daunting security challenge will come from Europe’s massive trade flows. Effectively dividing the latter into trusted and non-trusted green and blue trade lanes is years away from reality. This is where reliable risk assessment is most needed.


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