Border Security in the 21st Century – What Next?

UKBATony Smith retired as Director General of the UK Border Force this month after more than 40 years’ service in the UK Home Office. During that time he has had a unique insight into border development programmes both in North America and the UK, culminating in a safe and secure London 2012 Olympics and a period of 6 months in the top job in the UK Border Force. Here Tony provides his own insight into how border security has evolved over recent years, and where he sees it going next.

When I joined the UK Immigration Service in the seventies the job – at least at the UK Border – was very much about controlling migration. Unlike many countries, the UK Immigration Service ran the primary line. Many of my early refusals were on “credibility” grounds, where hapless “tourists” from Southern Europe were sent back because they presented a potential threat to the UK labour market. Of course other agencies were active at the border too. HM Customs operated a self-selection type approach to the importation of goods, much of which survives to this day in the form of red and green channels where allowances are set and declarations made. And the police “Special Branch” were present, often working alongside immigration officers to spot potential criminals. Imagine my surprise, therefore, when I was posted to Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) as Director of Ports and Borders in 2000, to find Canada Customs operating the passport control, with Immigration operating only as a secondary “referral” point where doubts about admissibility were raised. Cynics would say that this was merely a reflection of the political mood of the day. The UK was always fiercely protective of its labour market; Canada needed all the workers they could get. So Canada was happy to let people in – but keen to tax them first!

All this changed, of course, after 9/11. I was embroiled in intensive cross border activity with the US authorities at the time, and saw the very rapid demise of the US Immigration and Naturalisation Service (INS) as the clamour for better border co-ordination took hold through the creation of Homeland. The idea that the frontier was simply to enforce customs or immigration laws shifted rapidly to a new role of “protection”, giving much greater weight to the police and the security agencies. This new found “collaboration” saw the growth of the joint passenger analysis units (JPAUs) and the integrated Border Enforcement Teams (IBETs), forcing agencies and departments to work together to gather data and refine intelligence into better targeted interventions.

You might call me unlucky, because I was also Head of Ports in the UK Immigration Service (UKIS) through the 7/7 era. As with the events of 9/11 five years before, I saw a major review of border security but this time viewed through a different lens – one of “home grown” terrorism. This led to a much broader set of principles, set out in the excellent “CONTEST” strategy that has served the UK well for so many years now. Indeed it was the CONTEST framework – with notable additions around site and venue security and accreditation – that formed the basis for our successful London 2012 Olympic Programme.

Then, in the run up to the Olympics, the UK Border Force faced its biggest upheaval of all – segregation from its parent UK Border Agency into a separate Home Office Department, reporting through a Director General (latterly me) direct to Home Office Ministers. This brought the eternal borders debate of facilitation versus control very much into the public eye – giving carte blanche to less informed commentators to make political capital out of the dilemma by complaining first of inadequate checks then second of long queues at the border. More telling, however, was the shift away from immigration control (already destabilised by the merger between UKIS and HM Customs in 2008) into a new multi-function force capable of tackling all border threats without fear or favour to any particular one.

Having successfully negotiated the Olympics – and the post Olympic period – I can see a new and compelling future for Border Control both in the UK and in other countries. But it will only survive with one critical ingredient – collaboration.

Whilst serving in Canada I was actively involved in the IATA “Simplified Passenger Travel” (SPT) initiative. This brought together control agencies, airport operators, airlines and technology suppliers into one framework all dedicated to a safer, simpler passenger traveller experience. After 9/11 the US authorities dropped out – but quickly returned to the table when we changed the name to “Secure Passenger Travel”. This was not disingenuous. The flip side of facilitation is control. The key to both is the accurate, timely and collaborative acquisition and dissemination of data. Using the same collaborative framework we were able to run the first genuinely global “trusted traveller” trial between the UK, Dubai and Hong using biometrics and data exchange for automated fast track passage between those countries.

The UK Border Force is now well placed to return to these themes. A cross cutting border strategy – which enables all the relevant agencies and departments to contribute to border tasking – offers a chance to build a genuinely cross cutting risk assessment to identify all threats including those posed by immigrants, smugglers, criminals and terrorists. This in turn gives technology suppliers the opportunity to innovate border systems to deliver better outcomes informed by intelligent analysis. This in turn should enable those carriers and travellers who provide accurate, timely data to reap the benefits through an enhanced traveller experience.

Like minded countries can then collaborate to build international risk profiles to help automate the passenger experience for the vast majority of innocent travellers, whilst still enhancing the capability of our enforcement agencies to identify and interdict the small minority that would cause us harm.

No border in the world is completely impregnable. Every move forward by the border agencies will be shadowed by their opponents, who will continue to probe for vulnerabilities to further their own particular interests. But if the agencies can collaborate – not just with one another but also with the industry and the technicians – then there is a real chance of lasting success. I hope they can.


• Tony Smith is now Managing Director of Fortinus Ltd, offering specialist advice on border security and leadership. Twitter @FortinusGlobal


share on:

Leave a Response