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26 May 2021

How worried should we be about Priti Patel’s plans for biometric border checks?

The Home Secretary has announced plans to monitor the number of people travelling in and out of the UK.

By Oscar Williams

The Home Office has unveiled its latest plan to “radically transform” the operation of Britain’s border and immigration system. In a policy paper published on 24 May, the department revealed it intends to “significantly increase the use of automation” to create a fully digital border by 2026.

This marks the third such scheme the Home Office has attempted to roll out in the past decade, raising questions about whether the deadline will be met. But if it is, how will the scheme work, who is likely to build it, and what impact will it have on people’s privacy?

The most eye-catching feature of the initiative is the introduction of so-called contactless corridors. Powered by facial recognition, the corridors would allow travellers to enter the UK without passing through e-gates or traditional passport checks.

Instead, security checks for non-British or Irish passengers would be carried out online before they travel. Once they arrive in the UK, they would pass through a passage patrolled by facial recognition cameras that would check that their facial scan matches the photo they submitted online.

This particular feature of the system currently remains an aspiration. The policy paper notes that “during the lifetime of this strategy, we also intend to explore further options for crossing the border, which could include contactless passage through border controls. We are already working with a group [of] academics to identify trends and opportunities in this space.”

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Similar technology has already been rolled out for the Eurostar, and the British start-up behind it, iProov, has “indirectly” made contributions to the Home Office’s work regarding airports too, its CEO Andrew Bud told the New Statesman.

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iProov has recently secured a number of high-profile British contracts. As the New Statesman reported in March, the company has developed the user verification process for the new NHS app, which acts as a vaccine passport. In July last year, the company used the same technology to provide contactless travel entry for Eurostar passengers travelling from London’s St Pancras station. The pilot, which was funded by the Department for Transport, was paused in the autumn due to the pandemic, but is expected to restart again shortly.

The company therefore appears well placed to pick up some of the work. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Bud is pleased by the Home Office’s plans: “This news is extremely good because our work with Eurostar was about ensuring that people could pass through ticket checks and border exit checks in exactly the way that is described in the [Home Office’s] report.

“But there is actually a question of whether this fitted the strategy of the border force, and what we’re here seeing today is that it absolutely does fit the strategy of the border force, which is great news,” he added.

The Home Office has said that one of the key reasons to roll out the technology is that it will enable officials to keep a real-time count of the number of people entering and exiting the country. But there has been speculation that the Home Office also wants passengers to hand over data in advance, because it will give officials sufficient time to check EU policing databases before they travel to the country. The UK lost real-time access to these databases after Brexit.

[See also: Revealed: the government-backed scheme that could bring facial verification to pubs]

Given facial recognition is one of the most controversial fields of technology, it’s inevitable that the latest scheme will raise privacy concerns. The system collects what Bud called a “contemporary selfie” of travellers entering the UK. He admitted that if the Home Office wanted to repurpose these images for facial recognition systems, it would make it “somewhat” easier than relying on passport photos, given they would be more up-to-date.

“Bear in mind, however, that when you turn up at an e-gate, they capture a contemporary selfie of you,” he added. “I don’t believe this technology significantly affects people’s civil rights in any way at all. It doesn’t change what the Home Office is already able to do.”

Passengers currently have the option of not using an e-gate, however. And while Bud noted there are rules under data protection legislation about repurposing data, they have done little to stop the Home Office from abusing confidential personal information in the past. In 2019 it emerged that the department was still using NHS patient data for migration enforcement despite indicating it would stop doing so the previous year. Given this history and Priti Patel’s rhetoric around illegal migration, privacy campaigners will be watching carefully as the plans for the new system take shape in the months ahead.