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EXCLUSIVE - The role of technology in dealing with unprecedented volumes and increasing complexity of traffic across borders

At the INTERPOL World Congress in Singapore this year, OpenGov had the opportunity to speak to Dr. John Coyne, Head of Border Security Program at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI). ASPI is an independent, non-partisan think tank that produces expert and timely advice for Australia’s strategic and defence leaders.

ASPI is an independent think-tank created out of a need for contested policy within the political and policy scene. ASPI was established by the Australian Government in 2001 and is partially funded by the Department of Defence.

Dr. Coyne has previously worked with the Australian Federal Police, looking at transnational serious organised crime, national security, and counter-terrorism. Over the last twenty years he has been an intelligence professional at tactical, operational, and strategic levels across a range of military, regulatory, national security and law enforcement organisations.

He talked about how border security has evolved over the years, saying, “From a national security and domestic security perspective today, running a good, strong, secure border is as much about allowing and facilitating trade and travel, as it is about locking out the bad guys.”

There is a big opportunity for collaboration and cooperation between the public and private sector in the area. As Dr. Coyne explained, borders are ‘owned’ by a whole range of parties. For instance, at Sydney Airport, the Airport itself is owned by an independent company. There are all the airlines which fly in and out of the airport. There are all the service providers who provide the meals that come on to planes, who handle the rubbish that comes off planes. Then there’s the police and the border officials.

Dr. Coyne said that it is not just an area which is ripe for collaboration in the form of strategic partnerships to drive innovation around the delivery of new services and generation of new ideas.

“The border has never seen the amount of traffic across that we have now. The number of travellers across our borders, the amount of cargo that comes in and out of our countries is unprecedented,” he said. In this situation, it is impossible to check every traveller or every box of cargo. It’s a search for a needle in an exponentially growing haystack, where we do not know what the actual needle looks like.

Strong risk management is required. Big data sets are required that can be analysed, and the stakeholders need to have the capabilities to collect and analyse the data and share information and insights. That kind of innovation often comes from the private sector and can be brought into border security through public-private partnerships.

In addition to the pure numbers, there is another challenge. It is very difficult to assess if a certain individual is coming into the country with ideas to disturb the harmony of a society or indulge in unlawful activities.

Things like artificial intelligence can help but it is not as simple as developing an algorithm. It has to be part of a broader strategy. Technology can be taken out of context. For example, there are many biometric solutions available in the market today. “But biometrics are only as good as the system that collects the data, that provides you with the capacity to analyse it, allows you to store it, allows you to match it to identities. Great ideas in innovation have to sit by a strategy,” Dr. Coyne said.  

Therefore, strategists, policymakers, innovators, technology companies have to come together to discuss and address these issues. 

(Recently, ASPI issued a report on ‘Big Data in national security’, which identifies several challenges in the use of big data such as the complexity, obtaining the quantity and quality of data needed for predictive assessments, potential for discriminatory outcomes and privacy issues. It also points out that state-of-the-art machine learning algorithms used in big-data analytics demonstrate a concerning and increasing level of opacity. It says that “Algorithmic black boxes cannot be permitted to become responsible for key national security decisions” and proposes a ‘human-in-the-loop’ analytics process.)

Global standards

“My name is John Coyne. How does the Singaporean government know that I am in fact the John Coyne who is on this passport and that I am the John Coyne who was born on so and so date. How do I ensure that all those identities line up, in a way which can be accepted by the Singapore government? We are a long way off from establishing that sort of global standard,” Dr. Coyne explained.

But ways can be found to make the traveller experience and the security experience work more efficiently through innovation. And all the technology for that exists.

“You arrive at Singapore airport tomorrow. They take your passport. They swipe it. They then match the biometrics in the passport with your biometrics. You arrive at Sydney airport. You walk off the plane. You walk down and you pick up your bags. As you are walking down, a series of cameras take a photo. Which is matched to the photo that was taken in Singapore airport, which then matches to the passport, identifies whether you have been to Australia before, runs a risk management profile over the top of it, which was probably done by the time you hopped on to the plane in Singapore.”

In another example of innovative risk management, Dr. Coyne talked about saving young women from Thailand sold into sexual servitude in Australia. You are not going to check all 850 people coming off an A380. A targeting matrix will have to be prepared and maybe, Thai women between the ages of 18 and 35 who are coming to Australia on tourist visas or student visas have to checked.

Border security in ASEAN and Australia

There are centres of excellence, such as Changi Airport in Singapore. But there are areas which are challenged as well. In general, the physical geography, as well as the human dynamics of the ASEAN region makes it incredibly difficult to secure borders.

People commute on a daily basis from Malaysia to Singapore for work, from Cambodia into Vietnam. There are long, remote borders in Thailand, Laos, Myanmar.

Secondly, the Belt and Road initiative is attempting to open up the region, and drive economic growth, which will be accompanied by massive changes.

Differences in culture and some degree of mistrust prevents the adoption of measures to develop a harmonised border control mechanism in the region.

When asked about Australia, Dr. Coyne replied that Australia is probably 2 years in, on a 10-year journey. The first thing was to amalgamate the two departments of borders and customs into a single department, the Department of Immigration and Border Protection.  

Then they elongated their border from a policy perspective. So now the Australian border is effectively in Singapore. A Singaporean student who wants to come to Australia to study begins his/ her application process in Singapore and the decision is made here. So, not everything happens at the geographical point of crossing.

The next part is creation and integration of technology, in areas such as data analytics. And then the application of the technology to hone down the focus on the miniscule percentage of travellers who pose a high risk.

“How do you allow the biggest proportion of people who pose no threat to come into the country, and focus all your efforts on that things that can be damaging to our security,” Mr. Coyne said.

The technology spans multiple sectors, from biometrics to big data analytics to cameras on the move to automatic scanners. All of those have to be brought together.

The rapid pace of technological change poses a big challenge here. Thirty or twenty years ago, technology didn’t change as fast as today. A computer system could be expected to last for 10 years or more. But now things are changing on a daily basis. What’s new today is old tomorrow. There’s constant innovation. Today what we would define as big data in a numerical sense, would be business as usual by next year.

Dr. Coyne said, “In Australia, you have smart gates were implemented a few years ago at a of cost tens of millions of dollars. Now the next generation of the gates is being developed. I have been asked why would a country want to replace the e-gates so soon. We just spent tens of millions of dollars on these.”

“The idea that a government can invest 20 million dollars in a border security measure and it will have a life-cycle of 20 or 30 years is a dated concept. For policymakers and government, that’s a tough idea to grasp,” he added.

Around 18 months ago, the ruler of Dubai said that I want people who arrive in Dubai airport to get off the plane and arrive at the sidewalk within 15 minutes. It’s been achieved.  

“They brought everyone together and they worked it out. The individual owners didn’t change things. They changed things as a system of systems. And the thinking had changed like that,” Dr. Coyne said., “And I can’t say it enough, the average senior government official doesn’t necessarily always understand that that’s a way you can do business. This is about a change in mindset. That’s the other part of the conversation.”

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