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Swings and carousels in airport and border security 

FEATURE: NZ Security, April 2015

Managing borders is no easy task. From Queensland fruit flies to illegal workers posing as tourists, international criminals to terrorist fighters carrying photo- substituted passports, allowing the good folk in and keeping the bad folk out, is a ‘round-the-clock’ challenge for border authorities.

On the one hand, people demand watertight borders, yet on the other they want hassle-free – and preferably visa-free – travel and immigration clearance procedures. On the one hand, we insist that authorities conduct the necessary checks to prevent criminals from breaching our borders, yet on the other we abhor the intrusion into privacy that comes with bag checks, laptop data scrutiny and immigration interviews.

In the middle of this are immigration, customs and quarantine authorities and airport and airline staff. With worldwide airport passenger numbers in 2013 totalled 6.3 billion, and volumes set to double in the next 20 years, border security threats are not going away. Just what are border authorities around the world doing to meet the challenge of keeping borders secure while handling the massive throughput? We take a look.

Biometrics at the border – ePassports and fingerprints

More than any other recent development in border security, biometrics personifies the tug o’ war between airport convenience and visa application hassle, passport security and passport holder privacy.

Biometric information can include photographs, finger prints, iris scans and even voice recognition. New Zealand’s Immigration Act allows for the collection of photographs of a person’s head or shoulders, fingerprints, and iris scans from foreign nationals, for immediate use and storage for future use. It also allows biometrics to be collected from New Zealand citizens on arrival in NZ. Where the person’s identity and citizenship is confirmed, the information is disposed of and is not stored.

A biometric passport, also known as an ePassport, contains biometric information that can be used to authenticate the identity of its holder.In accordance with Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) specifications, the passport uses contactless smart card technology, including a microprocessor chip and antenna embedded in its front or back cover or centre page.

The critical information of the passport and its holder is printed on the data (photo) page of the passport and stored in the chip. Public Key Infrastructure (PKI) is used to authenticate the data stored electronically in the chip making it difficult to forge. Counterfeits are prohibitively expensive, and gone are the days when one might get away with a good photo substitution under the data page lamina.

The potential ‘frontline’ use of biometrics in countering terrorism was recently revealed in Australia. New biometric collection measures enabled by powerful legislation can
now identify returning terrorist fighters – including any child suspected of involvement in terrorism – at the border by crosschecking their fingerprints at airports against watch list data from international agencies.

But privacy advocates have been scathing in their criticism of ePassports, the vulnerability of their wireless RFID technology to interception, and the possibility of data being shared between governments and eventually falling into the wrong hands.

Immigration New Zealand (INZ) already shares biometric and other information relating to foreign nationals with Australia, the US, UK and Canada under the Five Country Conference (FCC) Data Sharing Protocol. This arrangement has been in place since 2011 and has been highly successful in managing immigration risk. But sharing arrangements will likely expand beyond the FCC within a matter of years... if not by INZ then by any one of its FCC partners.

The other big sore point for travellers is the hassle of having to endure the collection of their biometric data – usually fingerprints and photographs – when they apply for a visa to travel to any one of the growing list of countries that require it. Even though the visa application process for many destinations is at least part online, enrolling one’s biometrics as part of the application process necessitates in-person finger printing at an often inconveniently located enrolment centre.

Better security and a faster breeze through the airport?

But there is an upside to all this. If you’ve flown across the ditch in recent times, you’d know that SmartGate ePassport readers have been installed at arrivals in Australian airports and departures in New Zealand airports. SmartGate performs the customs and immigration checks normally made by a Customs Officer, and they’re making immigration clearance for ePassport holders of several nationalities much quicker.

Similar systems are popping up at airports around the world. At the end of 2014, a total of 74 e-gates were in place at the German airports of Frankfurt, Munich, Dusseldorf and Hamburg airports, and will almost double by the end of the year to 140. It is claimed that this facial recognition-based system reduces the processing time for each passenger to less than 18 seconds.

US Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) Global Entry program takes this a big step further. This program allows expedited clearance for pre-approved, low-risk travellers upon arrival in the US by using automated kiosks located at select airports. Pre-approval entails background checking and an in-person interview.

Program participants proceed to Global Entry kiosks, present their machine-readable passport or US permanent resident card, place their fingertips on a scanner for fingerprint verification, and complete a customs declaration. The kiosk issues the traveller a transaction receipt and directs the traveler to baggage claim and the exit.

Similar technology allowing low- risk travellers to breeze through screening from “kerb to aircraft door” is being slated for Melbourne Airport. It will become the fourth airport, after Heathrow, Amsterdam’s Schiphol, and Doha’s Hamad, to test the new Smart Security program.

A trial with Qantas to start at the airport this year will see people register as ‘known travellers’ after being cleared via background checks by security agencies. Avoiding the normal airport screening, advanced facial biometric technology will link them to their travel documents and communicate a risk assessment to the boarding gate.

These passengers will potentially walk through streamlined checkpoints without having to remove shoes and hand in laptops and mobile phones. Devices would scan for banned items and prohibited amounts of liquid.

Pre-vetting, online checking and remote baggage drop

Other innovations already arrived or due to land at your airport sometime soon include one of the many self- service bag drops being trialed by airlines. These include solutions that can be installed either in the terminal building or offsite, allowing passengers to identify themselves using their boarding pass and then print out their bag tags. If installed in a hotel lobby or airport car park, these units can make navigating luggage trolleys into a terminal a thing of the past.

It will also soon be likely for passengers to track their checked-in bags via mobile phone apps in much the same way as one might track a courier parcel. The technology is already here, and it probably won’t be too long before airlines and airports will start rolling it out to their travelling customers.

Ultimately, there exists strong evidence of a trend of cooperation towards a more seamless coordination of security, baggage and immigration clearance processes at airports, well, major airports at least. Developments will largely focus on the streamlining of such processes for pre-vetted passengers deemed to be of ‘low risk’.

Those with the wrong type of passport, a blemished immigration or criminal record, or some other attribute that doesn’t satisfy a border authority’s low-risk threshold, will likely find themselves on the wrong side of the biometrics revolution. High-risk 21st century jet setters may well have to continue to settle for a more ‘traditional’ 20th century destination airport welcome.

Back to Border

The new standard: Passports bearing the ePassport symbol 

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