The invisible Brexit backstop: making a hard border disappear

It is an all too familiar scene. Long queues of people and vehicles waiting to cross a border, paperwork all in a flutter and stony-faced customs officials rummaging through belongings and peering into the backs of lorries. A question on many minds is whether technology can do away with such perturbations. And the answer is yes. New systems are making it easier to cross borders on land, at ports and in air terminals. Within a few years it should be possible, at least in theory, for a border to become invisible. People and goods would flow through without stopping, leaving all the formalities to take place electronically and out of sight.

This might appear the ideal answer to the seemingly intractable problem of the nature of the border between Britain and Ireland when Britain leaves the European Union. Neither side wants the return of a “hard” border of physical infrastructure, with its associated security and customs checks. But retaining an open border would impose legal constraints on Britain’s freedom to change its laws in ways that diverge from the eu’s. To many on the British side, this would be tantamount to keeping Britain in the eu.

If technology could make the border invisible on the ground, leaving legal checks to be done elsewhere, that might satisfy most parties. Yet as promising as the technology to do this is, in practice the cost of fully deploying the kit required for an open border is likely to be expensive, and the accompanying level of electronic surveillance too high for many to stomach, especially in Ireland.

Paperwork be damned

Despite these concerns, a number of borders around the world are being modernised with new technology, in order to become more open. The starting-point is taking the “paper” out of the paperwork. Documentation involved in shipping goods from one country to another is going virtual. Electronic customs declarations are being made easier to submit, allowing the pre-clearance of shipments and the online payment of tariffs.

Switzerland, for one, aims to digitise its border procedures with the eufully by 2026. A SFr400m ($400m) programme known as DaziT will provide a central online portal for all customs services. This will, for instance, let travellers use smartphones and tablets to declare foreign purchases on which duties may be owed.

The security of such systems is likely to be protected by blockchain, the technology that underpins cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin. A blockchain records transactions on a decentralised register in a way that is difficult to tamper with. Last May Singapore introduced electronic certificates of origin, based on blockchain, for goods travelling into and out of the country. The system, developed by vCargo Cloud, a local firm, allows a mobile-phone app to be used to scan a qr code, a fancy type of matrix bar code, attached to the goods in question. The app will reveal the certificate.

Singapore’s busy port, along with ports in Hong Kong, Rotterdam, Philadelphia and other places, have started to use a blockchain-enabled process called TradeLens. This is the result of a collaboration between Maersk, a big Danish shipping firm, and ibm, an American computer firm. TradeLens provides access to a range of electronic data tracking shipping containers and their contents for importers, freight forwarders, port operators and customs authorities.

One of the advantages of using blockchain is that it readily reveals if things have been tampered with. Every time a code or a sensor attached to goods is scanned, that event is logged in the blockchain and tagged with other data, such as the location of the goods. But no system is foolproof, so authorities will want to ensure that whatever crosses their borders is what the data purport it to be. Hence some sort of facility for physical checks will still be needed.

That is largely the case at one of the most technologically advanced land borders: that between Sweden, an eu member, and Norway, which is part of the eu’s single market but not a member of the eu’s customs union. The 1,600km border is largely open for travellers, although automatic number-plate recognition (anpr) cameras are used to monitor passing vehicles, and officials will pull over any suspicious ones. Electronic pre-arrival customs declarations have been introduced and, in some cases, Norway will let companies ship goods across unmanned crossings. Most lorries, however, still need to stop at specific manned crossings to have their details checked. If it is not too busy, this need take only a few minutes.

Lars Karlsson, a Swedish customs expert, looked at what technologies could be used to reduce or eliminate the need to stop and undergo border checks, with a particular reference to Ireland, in a report presented to the European Parliament in 2017. Mr Karlsson said any such system would, as a starting-point, require a fully electronic environment for documentation and payments.

It would work something like this. Pre-registered companies, sometimes called “trusted traders”, would have to submit additional information, such as details of the lorry being used and the person driving it. The driver might need an enhanced licence containing biometric data (facial scans, for example). As the lorry approached a border it would be identified by anpr cameras. Other roadside sensors would detect a code placed on the driver’s mobile phone, which would identify him. The system would text a customs release note to the driver and alert authorities that the goods stated on an electronic manifest have just passed over. At a hard border, the release note might instead open a gate automatically for the lorry to drive through.

Trust. But verify

No country has yet put together all these elements to create an open border. The obstacles are not technological, though. For one thing, since it would need co-ordination between different customs authorities, the negotiations could be protracted. Some companies have also expressed concern that trusted-trader schemes might prove bureaucratic and expensive, especially for small firms.

Assuming such problems can be overcome, authorities would still want ways to catch smugglers. Again, technology can help. It is now reasonably straightforward to use mobile-phone networks and satellites to track people, goods and vehicles. This would let authorities check that cargo arrives at its intended destination. Fujitsu, a Japanese firm, says that cameras can be used to read not just number plates but also the identification markings on containers, and check that seals have not been tampered with. Using artificial-intelligence techniques, the company reckons cameras can be taught to recognise the faces of drivers as well.

At some point physical checks will be needed, although these do not have to be carried out at a border. Vehicles could be pulled over at other locations for random shakedowns or because the data flag something as suspicious. Mobile customs units could carry out checks, even at delivery locations, using hand-held devices to scan, at a distance, smart tags attached to individual products and cartons. And other techniques are available, too. Container x-ray scanning is becoming faster, more powerful and capable of identifying not just outlines but also detail, including people hiding inside. Some of this scanning equipment is mobile.

As for keeping an eye on people crossing borders, systems being developed for use at airports might find wider use. One idea is a single digital travel “token” to speed people through airport terminals, even on multiple legs of a journey. A prototype of such a system has been developed by sita Lab, a Swiss technology group owned by the airline industry.

In sita’s system the token resides on a traveller’s mobile phone and represents encrypted travel documents, passport details and other information. Whenever the traveller arrives at a checkpoint or is stopped by an official, the app is used to generate a qr code. That code is then scanned to confirm the traveller’s details. These are held in a database secured, as might be expected, by blockchain. Regular commuters across land borders could carry similar tokens on their mobile devices.

For remote borders with little or no infrastructure, there are various techniques that can keep an eye, or rather an ear, out. QinetiQ, a British firm, has a system called OptaSense, which uses a fibre-optic cable laid in the ground. Sound from above creates vibrations in this cable. These affect its light-carrying properties. Those changes can be detected at a distance by shining a laser through the cable. The equipment is sensitive enough to discriminate between the sounds made by different types of vehicle, such as a tractor or a lorry, and to detect people walking about.

Given enough money and determination, it should therefore be possible to make a hard border disappear. The difficult bit is the politics—especially whether the level of background surveillance required would be acceptable to people. In Ireland, with its long history of troubles, that is unlikely to be the case. Even a solitary anpr camera at an Irish border crossing might be blown up. However, in other parts of the world, where hard borders now exist, travellers are likely to find that their passage will become easier.

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