Border patrol: inside e-Borders

In an ambitious initiative to keep tabs on all travel to and from the UK, the government calls on a consortium of engineers and technologists to deliver the necessary solutions. Jon Excell reports.

Life couldn’t be simpler for the handful of mid-week shoppers browsing the stores of The Chimes shopping centre in Uxbridge. To the accompaniment of soft muzak, the reassuring pattern of browse, buy and eat dulls the senses and temporarily holds at bay the spectres of economic meltdown and terrorism that stalk the real-world outside.

Little do the shoppers know that just a few hundred metres away, behind the glinting glass and chrome of a neighbouring office block, lies the latest front line in the UK’s war against international crime.

This is the base of the Trusted Borders consortium, a 600-strong team of engineers and technicians, working elbow to elbow on the government’s e-Borders programme, an initiative heralded as the most advanced and ambitious border control project in the world.

The consortium, led by defence giant Raytheon Systems and including, among others, Qinetiq and Capgemini, was awarded the £650m contract to develop the system late last year, narrowly beating a rival consortium led by BT.

With an estimated overall cost of £1.2bn, the aim of e-Borders is to keep track of everyone coming in and out of the UK, whether they be the skippers of private yachts or passengers arriving at Heathrow airport. A straightforward enough objective. But with an estimated 250 million people making this journey each year, it’s a pretty tough call. Not only does it require new technology and infrastructure. But the solution must meet with approval of a dizzying assortment of government agencies, travel industry bodies, and, of course, passengers; ramping up security while ensuring the UK doesn’t become a fortress so impenetrable nobody wants to come here.

The man charged with keeping all of these balls in the air is Raytheon’s solution design authority director Martyn Dawkes who explained the technical challenges in an exclusive interview with The Engineer.

The good news for Dawkes and his team is that they don’t have to start from scratch. A £15m pilot scheme, dubbed Semaphore, has been running since November 2004.

Developed by IBM, this scheme has tested some of the key concepts of e-Borders, capturing passenger information on a limited number of air routes and matching the data against watch-lists held by the authorities. According to Home Office figures, alerts triggered by the system have led to more than 2,000 arrests for crimes ranging from fraud to murder.

But though some of the basic building blocks are in place, expanding the limited scope and capability of Semaphore presents some pretty harsh challenges. ‘Semaphore deals with a relatively small part of the e-borders scope around collecting the data and doing some analysis — but we have a much more complex and significant challenge,’ explained Dawkes.

‘One challenge is to take the pilot as a conceptual idea, expand it to the full scope that e-borders has, maintain operational capability and drive it forward in a way that is incremental to the users rather than completely changing something.’

Another huge problem is juggling the differing needs and priorities of everyone involved in e-Borders, from the different government agencies all the way through to the passengers. Dawkes said: ‘e-Borders is…intended to address the needs of multiple government agencies…that have flex over time in terms of their degrees of importance. Today immigration might be the thing people are most focused on, tomorrow it might be counter-terrorism and the need to understand people’s transport to and across the UK border.’

The foundation of the system is the technology that will rapidly collect passenger information from a number of different carriers in as non-invasive manner as possible. And biometric systems that measure some form of biological data and match passports with their carriers are the enabling technology.

‘It’s important we know who is coming across the border, not just which documents are coming across,’ said Dawkes.

A number of projects are underway. Earlier in the summer, the UK Border Agencybegan trials of an automated biometric facial recognition system at Manchester International airport.

The system, provided by Fujitsu Services, uses advanced facial recognition technology to compare the features of UK and EU passengers using the system with the data on their biometric passports. These passengers are fast-tracked through immigration with no prior registration.

Then there’s the slightly longer-running iris recognition immigration system (IRIS) project, a voluntary scheme in which registered passengers can enter the UK more quickly by making use of iris scanners at automated gates. Installed at a number of airports, including Gatwick, Manchester and Heathrow, this system identifies registered travellers by analysing the unique pattern of the iris and comparing it against a stored record.

But though facial and iris recognition systems are currently the technology of choice, Dawkes warned that biometrics is a rapidly evolving field and e-Borders must be designed with this in mind. ‘The biometrics technology space is a moving feast and we have to recognise that over a 10-year programme. The technology is changing rapidly: face, iris, fingerprint today, to gait and palm recognition, and who knows what tomorrow. We have to be able to adapt and flex the solution to accommodate that.’

Although biometric passports will be a key element, Dawkes said that the system will also have to cope with the many travellers who don’t carry biometric passports. ‘It’s going to take 10-plus years to roll out biometric passports [in the UK] and we will be collecting data from a population carrying passports that will range from plain biographic to second and third-generation after that — doing real-time comparison of information-on-document to comparisons-on-person.’

Clearly, without the full co-operation of the different carriers and transport companies e-Borders would be an impossible task. And as the system will be collecting information from passengers before they begin their journey to the UK, it must also account for the fact that levels of sophistication vary across the world. ‘There are all manner of airports across Europe and other places that are very transient in terms of their set-up, and the provision of information is a significant challenge,’ said Dawkes.

This difficulty is compounded by the fact that carriers will also have to foot some of the bill. This summer, in a written parliamentary answer, departmental minister, Liam Byrne MP, said that an airline’s running costs for e-Borders over 10 years are estimated at £330m. Unsurprisingly, at a time when many airlines are struggling to stay in business, industry is worried by the financial implications. Dawkes agreed that this is an area of concern, ‘Carriers have raised concerns about the costs being placed on them to provide that information, but we’re trying to do it in a way which is sensitive to that.’

But it’s not just the air-industry that will be affected by e-Borders. Indeed, each mode of transport presents its own unique set of challenges. ‘Air is much bigger in scale, so you need a solution that will marry up to that scale,’ said Dawkes. ‘but with maritime, you need to recognise the fact that the proportion of people who just turn up and go is significantly greater than it is with air. Rail has different challenges [although we] are pretty fixed in terms of the number of carriers and routes. We have to deal with every carrier right from the largest commercial carrier through to the individual who’s taking his boat to France for the weekend. It’s recognised that as you tighten up the borders, the potential for displacements and driving people who want to get into the country illegally to use small boats and other means is clearly there.’

The other party that stands to be affected by e-Borders is, of course, the passenger. But far from causing massive queues, missed journeys, and travel chaos, Dawkes suggested that e-Borders could ultimately help smooth the flow of travellers in and out of the UK. ‘[e-Borders] also touches the passengers who are going to have to provide information to the carriers. We want to make that as efficient as we can by ensuring we deploy technology appropriately…so that the 99 plus per cent of people who are coming into the country for perfectly normal reasons are not waylaid by cumbersome technology.’

There is also an obvious economic incentive for ensuring smooth passenger flow, said Dawkes. ‘there’s a whole complexity and integration challenge in recognising that you’re operating inside a port which is itself a business interested in making money, so anything that would severely challenge the ability to maintain the queues and flow through the border would not be welcomed by the government or the passenger.’

But gathering passenger data is only one link in the e-Borders chain. The other big technology challenge is developing the tools and algorithms that will analyse this information, check it alongside government watch-lists and get the right data to the right person as quickly as possible.

This, explained Dawkes, will require integration with a variety of existing security systems, such as the Borderwatch system developed by Qinetiq to detect stowaways in freight vehicles. However Dawkes stressed that e-Borders is far more than a massive integration project. ‘Any of the agencies would say [they’ve] got a very sophisticated analysis capability for addressing the data that’s specific to their particularly business need. What nobody has is a targeted analysis capability that’s focused on the transit of people going to and from the UK — to my mind that doesn’t yet exist.’

If the Trusted Borders team meet their deadlines we won’t have long to wait. By April 2009 the system should be counting in and counting out 100 million passenger movements a year. This is then expected to rise quite rapidly to 100 per cent.

According to the overall programme director, Raytheon’s Dr Brooke Hoskins, there is one immutable deadline. ‘Around the Olympics we’re expecting lots more people to come to the UK and it’s important that we know who’s come in and who has gone out. We are intending to have rolled out to all of the carriers prior to the Olympics so that we’re covering all of the passengers coming into and out of the UK.’

Clearly, the work won’t stop once these targets are met. As new technologies become available the system will become ever more advanced. And specially-developed tools that learn from the data captured by the system will enable the Trusted Borders team to continually tweak its effectiveness. ‘For instance,’ explained Dawkes, ‘they’ll be able to do analysis to identify which areas of the country…are most prone at any particular time to people coming in and out of the UK illegally and identify shifts in patterns.’

In the meantime Dawkes is confident that his team is well on the way to developing a border control system that will be the envy of the world. ‘e-Borders will cover the entire landscape of border management and allow the multi agencies to participate in that. We think it will be the most complete border management capability anywhere in the world.’