Smart(er) Borders: leveraging technology in a time of crisis

Over the past years, smart borders have been playing a significant role in enabling the movement of people and goods on a global scale, while ensuring the security and safety of nation states. However, the global pandemic COVID-19 put all we know about border control and management to the test as borders in the Schengen area were closed for over two months (and access is still limited), impacting global travel and migration in ways we’ve never experienced before.

Can borders be key to overcome some of the most pressing aspects of the COVID 19 pandemic? The answer is an unequivocal yes. If the enhancement of security and safety have been, until now, its best medals, it can also help our globalised economy to recover and to fulfil the human need for experiences on a global scale while mitigating risks for safety and health. 

Smart borders refers to information and communication technologies that warrant de-territorialised border controls, including biometric databases and information sharing systems, according to IGI Global.

For smart borders to reach their full potential, there’s a need to rebuild trust in cross-border travellers and reduce the mandatory quarantine. In the context of the COVID-19 crisis, the processes and technologies we’re using no longer cover our needs or, at least, not completely. As redundant as it seems, smart borders are required to get (even) smarter. This is where the wonders of technology come in, as a key enabler, for an upgrade able to cope with the challenges of the pandemic. 

In this article, we explore three key enabling technology trends that might bring about this much needed change in a deeply changed world, impacted by the colloquially called “coronavirus”.

The key drivers of smart borders

Before we dive into the technology trends, let’s start by having a look at the first steps taken in the smart borders field. Biometrics and integrated border IT systems have been the two drivers of smart borders since the concept came to be. 

In fact, more than a decade ago the use of biometrics to border control systems became central, as the demand for strong identity confirmation at international borders continued to rise, particularly after terrorist attacks. According to this article, fingerprints were the first biometric modality used to confirm travellers’ identities, and still remain the most widely used solution. 

The integration of biometrics into travel documents and during countries’ entry and exit checks reduced the risk of malicious individuals crossing borders with fake or fraudulent travel documents. Cryptography infrastructures, in turn, protect both the integrity of the information between travel documents and border IT, as well as the travellers’ privacy.

As the technology continued to evolve rapidly, automated border security systems came next, making the user experience when travelling internationally more secure and efficient. From the travel industry to product providers, biometrics is well on its way to replace boarding passes and document verification at the borders.

Regarding border IT systems, its continued integration has allowed border security to make more informed decisions on the front lines. How does it happen? Modern border posts can run, in fractions of a second, the presented travel documents against national and international databases, making it possible to learn about any travellers’ red flags.

However, a potential global health crisis wasn’t nowhere near the primary concern when these key drivers were developed and put in place. The rapid development of new technologies might just be part of the “answer” for this new masked world order where our eyes, the most visible part we have for now, are even learning to speak. Then, borders can regain the lost ground and fulfil their role successfully in overcoming the COVID-19 crisis.

Technology trends in border management

We have to remember this is not the first pandemic we’ve witnessed this century. The 2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic spread throughout the world, hitting 26 countries. There were more than 8000 cases in the same year, according to WHO. This health crisis led some countries to adapt and integrate additional technology at the borders. For example, airports in Asia began using thermal cameras to check peoples temperatures, making it easier to administer additional checks when needed. 

Over the first months of the COVID-19 crisis, we have seen initial technology initiatives that might become widely used border solutions in a post-pandemic scenario. We believe there are three key technology trends that will help smart borders take the next big leap.

  1. Contact-free biometric scanners 

Currently, cameras are used for face recognition at eGates or border posts, and fingerprints scanners are still one of the most used security solutions worldwide. However, this is about to change. Due to health reasons, speed and user preference, fingerprints and iris will be increasingly captured over a distance to reduce the risk of contamination. While this technology is (still) far from being widely used, travellers will most likely prefer contactless solutions and the growing customer demand might push businesses to adopt it worldwide.

But that’s not all. Multimodal devices will continue to develop. Additional sensors such as thermal detectors or wider field cameras will apply behaviour analytics joining the capturing of biometrics. These devices might support borders in creating more integrated and cost-effective solutions and further facilitate the efficiency of border controls. This trend doesn’t come without concerns on regulation and privacy that need to be addressed before broader implementation. Regarding the collected data—health-related, for instance—more advanced sensor technologies might lead to discrimination, and consequently, biased-decision making.

    2. Real-time data aggregation and AI-supported risk assessment. 

Current travel authorisation systems such as the US Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) aren’t prepared to deal with COVID19-like fast-paced events. Authorisations are valid for long periods, and real-time informationfor example the travel to an area particularly affectedcan only be considered on a by-case basis. There’s a growing need for systems to gather more encompassing data, as for example provided by health passes or larger health systems. However, the more the data is available, the more the need for border authorities to expand decision-support systems. This is when AI is key to assess vast amounts of information and complex regulation on risk management in a secure and efficient way. 

This approach to real-time data aggregation is already a “thing” in Taiwan, for example. The country joined immigration and health databases to alert clinics and pharmacies if a client was traveling to a high-risk zone. The aim is to help diagnosis in case of contamination and find the appropriate containment measures. 

Border agencies, airports and ports might be the firsts to try establishing these systems and processes, but they’ll need support to fully grasp the benefits of these technologies and minimise the risks of abuse. They’ll also need regulatory guidance, as the appropriate design can help balance privacy and efficiency.

      3. Leveraging mobile technologies 

By May 2020, there are already more than 3.5 billion smartphone users in the world, according to this article. The sensors and connectivity facilities of these devices can be leveraged to prevent the spreading of diseases, and to support local regulation that might temporarily restrict movement. In border management, mobile terminal systems can be augmented by contactless technologies and additional sensors, to capture the same level of information as stationary border posts, increasing the mobility of border guards. Technology-affine South East Asian countries, such as Singapore and South Korea, have rapidly applied those technologies for combatting COVID-19. 

As we talk about mobile and data, we’re confronted with one of the main concerns of modern times: security. The potential for abuse of those large-scale information collection systems by malicious actors is a dark scenario, but also a very possible one. The first step would be for governments to ensure that the public‘s trust in those solutions is warranted. What follows is strong public assurance that the application of these technologies is carefully considered, and is accompanied by forceful regulation and independent oversight. By fostering the expertise and best practices collected by practitioners in the field over the last years, governments, their agencies, and large organisations could ensure that the implementation of those systems is secure and privacy-preserving.

An example of a best practice is the European Commission that takes a careful approach in Smart Borders regulation. The institution provides detailed information on the purposes and procedures around the management of personal data, and detailed monitoring of the systems to detect potential abuse swiftly. 

Tips on how to accelerate the implementation of these solutions

It’s quite a challenge to know with any certainty when we can expect those technologies to be widely adopted. We can observe a difference in speeds when it comes to implementation between different global regions. Nevertheless, we have gathered four practical recommendations on the measures that can be taken to accelerate the adoption of these technologies and solutions globally. 

  • Embedding technologies and processes is key. Acquiring new systems without ensuring that they can contribute as intended, is a major cause for technology projects to fail. Simulating user journeys on the different touchpoints and assessing various scenarios are key factors for a successful integration.
  • Evaluating and managing the risks around smarter border technologies requires close collaboration among regulators, agencies and experts. Reactivity is no longer enough. There’s a need to adopt a forward-thinking approach that proactively addresses the more complex challenges around these technologies, and that actually helps to solve them.
  • Training and informing the key stakeholders is important as always. New technologies require new skills and upskilling the workforce is crucial and urgent. Travellers can then be provided in advance with information on how to use the new systems and what’s expected from them, potentially leveraging mobile technology.
  • Global cooperation might be the most important aspect of all. The national instinct to close down the borders first and evaluate later may have contributed to the severity of the crisis. Interoperability is not only needed on the technology level, but also on the processes and regulation level. Global organizations are actively working towards creating and implementing those standards (e.g. IATA in air travel, or WEF in guidance for organizations), however a stronger push might be needed.
Final thoughts

The COVID-19 crisis’ aftermath is here to stay, at least for a while. While we’re already experiencing more of its impact on the global and local economies, the long-term effects are still difficult to assess. We also don’t know yet how the new normal is going to look like but, taking as a reference the present days, it will probably continue to include masks and hand disinfectant,  and a limited number of people inside restaurants and shops. Smarter borders will ensure a more secure move of people and goods. They can and should also play a significant role in how quickly and how sustainably we are going to recover. The local governments play a crucial part in taking the opportunity within the crisis and rebuilding the trust of citizens around the world.

What we think
Andreas Braun, Senior Manager at PwC Luxembourg

Advanced technologies like touchless biometrics and AI can help to rebuild trust between people and countries. They should never be used to reinforce our human biases, but instead help us in taking better and more informed decisions. This requires embedding them in efficient and strong regulatory frameworks. 


Serge Hanssens, Partner at PwC Luxembourg

The post COVID-19 new normal creates a stronger need for smarter borders and the use of touchless identity solutions. Technology is a key enabler but trust, transparency and interoperability of processes, systems and standards are a must to make this happen. This crisis reinforces the urgency of deploying trusted identity and health information exchange between countries and operators at scale, ensuring quick economic recovery and safe movement of people.

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