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Blurring physical and digital – reinventing the border

5-minute read

In a recent blog by Anita Puri, we explored how the four tech trends in Accenture’s Technology Vision 2023 are fundamentally reshaping how public service agencies operate and interact with citizens. Their impact springs from their ability to help agencies to solve problems that were previously intractable.

The four trends are the growing role of digital identity; the pivotal importance of managing data transparently and securely; the rise of generative AI; and the accelerating feedback loop between science and technology innovation. The common factor? All four are driving convergence between our physical lives and fast-expanding digital lives.

In no area of public services are the implications of this blurring of physical and digital greater than for border agencies. Their role involves managing, coordinating, aligning vast amounts of data alongside the related movement of physical goods and people across borders. So merging physical and digital brings huge opportunities – together with some risks.

Getting to grips with digital identity

The trend most directly relevant to border agencies is digital identity. It’s been a hot topic for several years, with the ultimate goal being a globally-accepted standard for a government-attested digital credential for a traveller’s passport. In fact, a number of countries are already piloting this, based on the ICAO’s digital travel credentials (DTC). Other attestations and credentials – like boarding passes, bank cards, club memberships and driving licences – can also be held in secure and private digital wallets on mobile devices.

The wallet holder can share these credentials with actors across the end-to-end traveller or goods journey to confirm their identity or authorisation. As such, a digital passport might be shared with the border authorities ahead of travel – resulting in a seamless, friction-free border experience, and much less cost and effort for the agency.

However, realising this vision requires several questions to be addressed. Will the digital ID be self-managed, issued by a government or a hybrid of the two? Who will own, operate and maintain the digital wallets? More generally, who will be the issuers and verifiers for the digital ID, digital attestations and credentials? And how can individuals and organizations sharing and accessing the data trust the governance of these systems? At the same time, there are technical and operational issues to be tackled around interoperability and standardisation across different credentials, platforms and international borders.

Looking forward, as we advance towards the type of virtual frontier that we envision in our Borders 2030 report, further questions will arise. Such as, who will design and run the virtual border experience? What will it look and feel like? And how will agencies ensure they’re interacting with a real person rather than a deep fake?

While to date we’ve only scratched the surface of digital ID’s potential, progress is underway. For example, Ukraine has launched a digital app called Diia that combines an ID card, passport, driving licence, vaccination record, insurance, and health and social payments. And the European Commission is supporting a European Digital Identity (EUDI) wallet for credentials around travel, banking, education, health and more, creating a unifying standard across the EU.

Managing data end-to-end across the travel and trade lifecycles

Turning to the second tech trend, data, it’s clear that while data is a vital component of digital ID, its role and importance for border agencies go much further and wider. As we highlight in Borders 2030, reliable and easily-accessible high-quality data is key to agencies’ move “from trust to truth” – progressing from a purely trust-based operating model to one driven by data.

The Accenture Technology Vision 2023 stresses the importance of data transparency –  and here many border agencies have challenges. Currently, the way they store and use data is usually transaction-centric rather than person-centric. Take immigration: the various stages of the individual’s journey – application, temporary visa, work permit, permanent residency and so on – are handled in siloes with their own datasets. The inevitable outcome? A process that’s neither as efficient nor as effective as it could be. Meanwhile, on the customs side, agencies must manage and track an ever-increasing variety of data not just on the progress of shipments, but on issues ranging from product safety to provenance to labor conditions to carbon impact.

In each case, agencies need to drop their siloed, transactional approach to data, and look to capture and manage the stream of data that accompanies an individual or piece of merchandise on their end-to-end journey – of which crossing the border is just one step. Again progress is being made, with governments looking to develop ‘single trade windows’ for trade-related data, and innovators like E2Open and NxtPort offering solution to fill data gaps along supply chains.

Harnessing the power of generative AI…

The trend towards generative AI – or ‘Large Language Models’ or LLMs – brings further major implications for border agencies. Generative AI is trained on large datasets. But most governmental data related to borders is fragmented across siloes like immigration, customs, identity, port of entry operations and so on. 

In the long run, breaking down and integrating these siloes will be key to realising the full strategic value of generative AI. But in the meantime, by training LLMs on these siloes, they can offer major benefits at the operational level – for example by acting as co-pilots that augment border officers - through support ranging from helping them navigate complex policy-led legislation quickly and easily, to suggesting the next best action in a complex case, to automating routine tasks.

Given the highly regulated nature of border operations, an especially valuable use of generative AI would be to create a model trained on the complex tangle of regulations and policies at the national and international level, across areas like customs and trade policies, product security, climate-related sustainability, and more. But as agencies move to harness generative AI, there are risks to be aware of. One is that these same tools are available to cybercriminals, making rigorous vigilance and security paramount. The other is that border agencies’ decisions have a huge impact on people and businesses, meaning they must be able to explain and justify the rationale in every case. “Black box” AI based decision making won’t do.

…as we advance towards the virtual frontier.

Where is all of this taking us? In the future, it’s towards the virtual frontier we’ve depicted in Borders 2030. This is where the fourth trend – the ‘forever frontier’ feedback loop between science and technology innovation – comes into play, as technologies like biometrics, digital identity, geospatial intelligence, materials science and synthetic biology fuse with digital tech to create an ever more realistic virtual border that is seamlessly integrated with the physical border.

For now, the focus for border agencies should be on laying the foundations for that future – through digital ID, smart data management, and generative AI.


Prasanna Ellanti

Managing Director – Health & Public Service, Border Services