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Crossing Boundaries:

Emerging technologies at the border


Organizations across the world are in the midst of a digital revolution that’s sweeping away old processes and business models – especially those that are under-prepared for its impacts. In the face of this rapid and pervasive change, the only option is to adapt at pace, or be left trailing by the pace of progress.

Nobody is immune – and border agencies are no exception. Digital disruption of business models is being outpaced only by citizens’ rising expectations of government services. As if this wasn’t enough of a challenge, border agencies are also faced with record volumes of trade and travel, new and evolving security threats, tightening budgetary constraints, and a complex and shifting mix of opportunities and risks.

The implications for border agencies are profound. Citizens want better services, watertight security and seamless travel and trade experiences. For a border agency leader, you might think delivering simultaneously against all three of these apparently conflicting goals is impossible.

…Demanding a radical new approach

Think again. The good news is, it CAN be done. The key is for border agencies to commit themselves to innovation – meaning making smarter use of human capital and technology.

This report explores the window of opportunity for border agencies. If you’re bold enough to embrace emerging technologies, then you can deliver what your customers want – along with better outcomes for your staff, your organization and your community.

Mapping out the way ahead

Mapping Animation

A recent Accenture research probed how emerging technologies can help border agencies tackle their near-term and future challenges. Progress is being made with advances like biometric-enabled e-gates for passengers and predictive analytics to spot suspicious cargo but the pace and extent of adoption is patchy. It’s vital that border agencies fill that gap to break through the technology frontier and harness the full power of innovation.

Begin QuoteWe’re working in an environment where volumes and complexity are increasing, but budgets are decreasing. This requires us to think very differently about the way we deliver technology services.End Quote
Randall Brugeaud, CIO, Department of Immigration and Border Protection, Australia

Innovation in border services

While many border agencies are piloting emerging technologies, far fewer have fully implemented them. The most common focus areas are:

Advanced analytics
of border agencies surveyed who are aware of Emerging Technologies are already piloting or implementing them
Predictive modeling
of these border agencies are doing so with the aim of reducing risk and improving security

New approaches to passenger risk assessment

This is becoming increasingly important as criminals make growing use of advanced technologies.

  • Agencies have traditionally carried out passenger risk assessment by checking passengers' names against "watchlists" of known or suspected criminals. Today, advanced analytics enables much more sophisticated assessment such as link, pattern and "nearest neighbor" analysis.
  • Analytics can help tackle immigration fraud by highlighting people that are at risk of over-staying, failing to pay taxes or committing crimes once inside the country.
  • Analytics and biometrics are helping in refugee management – particularly in Europe, where some of the world’s most advanced border-protection technology is being tested to protect the Schengen free-movement area.
  • Agencies are also using advanced analytics to monitor sentiment proactively on social media.

Productive workforces

A further benefit of predictive analytics is to help free up staff to be more productive through better workforce planning. Nearly half of the border agencies we talked to told us that improving the work of staff is their primary objective in using advanced analytics.

  • Predictive tools enable agencies to allocate officers based not only on expected passenger arrivals, but also on risk profile. This approach is already helping Toronto Police Force conduct scenario and resource planning in advance.
  • This approach is also helping posts deal with the inexorable rise in goods and cargo traffic. In the U.S., automation and robotic cargo handling are helping border agencies better anticipate container volumes and improve productivity at terminals.

Screening and tracking with biometrics

Biometrics is not new, but it is taking on a new important role around simplifying and accelerating the immigration process. Advances such as biometric fusion – combining multiple biometric inputs to identify individuals more accurately – promise a step change in passenger screening. It is becoming a central feature of the E.U.'s Smart Borders program, in which fingerprints will be combined with facial imaging analysis to create identities for individual passengers.

Connecting the dots with the Internet of Things

To some, it might seem that the Internet of Things (IoT) is over-hyped. But customs agencies should not underestimate its power to help transform operations.

  • Smart seals have been around for several years but IoT opens up better ways of monitoring cargo and tracking journeys. Germany’s Hamburg Port Authority is collecting and analyzing data from sensors embedded in vehicles, containers, bridges and roadways. The analysis is delivered to officers’ mobile remotely, fed into schedules and helping road authorities channel traffic more effectively.
  • IoT data can also be used to detect fraud and other crimes. For instance, IoT can check whether cargo actually moves along the declared routes or detect potential tampering by tracking unexpected temperature changes in containers.

Advanced Analytics and Predictive Modeling

Begin QuoteAdvanced analytics and predictive modeling is probably the technology that is going to revolutionize our business more than any other, given that we are just dealing with enormous numbers where we cannot actually cover everything. This type of analytics enables us to far more accurately target our scarce resources to the people we are most interested in.End Quote
Michael Milford, First Assistant Secretary, Major Capability Division, Department of Immigration and Border Protection, Australia

Graph 1

Intelligent Process Automation

Graph 2

Video Analytics

Graph 3

Biometrics/Identity Analytics

Graph 4

Seamless movement

More efficient processing of passengers and goods doesn’t just hinge on the technology used at the border. Agencies also have much to gain by streamlining the travel authorization and data collection processes that take place ahead of arrival.

  • The use of inbuilt rules and intelligence to enable decision-making within automated processes (robotic or intelligent process automation) is playing an increasingly important role in the speeding up processing of asylum claims.
  • The real power comes when emerging technologies are combined. By bringing together mobile applications, biometrics and artificial intelligence, agencies can minimize interventions while maximizing effectiveness as border crossings.
Megaphone animation
of border agencies are aware of intelligent process automation
but only
Check animation
are already adopting or implementing intelligent process automation

Breaking down legacy barriers

Ask any CIO of a public service organization to pinpoint what’s holding them back from innovating, odds-on the answer will be “legacy systems”. Customs agencies are no different. However, as an obstacle to innovation, legacy systems are far from insurmountable. Applications such as the Mobile Passport Control enable faster processing at immigration and e-gates (such as at Amsterdam’s Schiphol or London’s Heathrow) don’t necessarily need to link back to large back-end legacy systems.

The value in legacy systems resides not in the systems themselves, but in the data they hold. The key to removing the shackles of legacy is to migrate the data to a new platform. Having done this, agencies can focus on managing, moving and capitalizing on data at speed.

The power of people

When implementing technology, another big challenge isn’t technology but people. Respondents to our survey said they are looking to hire talent from the private sector but few customs agencies are successfully doing this. Agencies need to hire and develop people with the right skills in analytics, social media and emerging technologies - but that is only one part of the story. Hands-on experience overseeing seismic change in organizational design and operations is also important.

So, how can agencies make themselves more attractive to the stars of digital? It’s not just about better salaries, a broader re-think in employment philosophy is needed to consider more flexible arrangements, encouragement of creative solutions and shorter term assignments.

Leadership: it's willing to drive change – but is it able?

People challenges extend to the very top of customs and immigration agencies, where too few senior leaders grasp the potential of emerging technologies. If senior decision-makers are unsure of investing in emerging technologies, then progress will be slow. Leadership must lead with innovation and focus on being an advocate of break down barriers and misconceptions about technology.

of leadership is able and willing to adopt and support emerging technologies
but just
of leadership is informed about emerging technologies and their potential

Top two highest-ranked barriers to implementation of emerging technologies

Rank animation

From vision to reality

Most border agencies are still in the very early stages of embracing emerging technologies. Given the fundamental challenges, it’s essential that they take a step-by-step approach to mapping out their journey.

The first step is to be honest and pragmatic. Senior leaders don’t have time to keep up with every new technology. But by gaining a better understanding of each technology’s potential, they will be able to exert the necessary influence over management and set an example for the rest of the organization. Having taken that initial step, leaders should then apply a three pronged-strategy:

Educate animation

Educate and evangelize

Scale animation

Start small, scale at pace

Creativity animation

Recruit creativity and agility

Bold transformation

With emerging technologies now starting to deliver on their promise, travelers and traders are wasting no time in mastering them. It’s time for border agencies to do the same.

Combined with the headwinds of rising travel and trade volumes, shifting security threats, restricted budgets and demands for seamless, secure movement nothing less than transformational thinking will be enough. These challenges cannot be tackled with tweaking around the margins of the organization. Introducing technology and solutions in isolation of one another will miss the full potential.

A leadership team that is enthusiastic and knowledgeable about merging technologies will carry the organization with them. Crucially, it will overcome suspicion and inertia in order to realize the full potential of new technology. The border agencies that achieve this will reap the benefits – increased efficiency, better security, enhanced customer experience and a more engaged workforce. Put simply, it’s time to cross the frontier of technology.


James Canham

James Canham

Managing Director, Global Border Services

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