UK to trial contactless borders using facial recognition technology

Home Office to launch pilot in bid to speed up checks and cut airport queues

Passengers queue in the departures area of Terminal 2 at Heathrow Airport in London. Reuters
Powered by automated translation

Britain's Home Office has announced plans to revolutionise how immigration checks are carried out with a pilot within two years of a “contactless” digital border, using the latest facial recognition technology.

It is part of a range of measures being announced by Home Secretary Priti Patel to overhaul UK border security, as a new review criticised the country's Border Force and said it needed to make “improvements”.

The Home Office is set to begin testing technologies that would allow some passengers to enter the UK and undergo automated border screening without going through an eGate or speaking to a Border Force officer, helping to speed up legitimate journeys to the UK.

The passengers would instead undergo pre-screening and be identified at the border using the latest technology.

The announcement forms part of the New Plan for Immigration: Migration and Border Control Strategy statement, in which Ms Patel also announced plans to pilot extending the minimum age of eGates from 12 to 10 years old. The move would reduce journey times for British families.

“As home secretary I have been focused on taking back control of our immigration system through my New Plan for Immigration,” Ms Patel said.

“This includes ensuring we have a border that is fit for the 21st century which allows travellers to get a visa and pass through the border easily, while maintaining national security.

“I am also committed to ensuring our fantastic Border Force are given access to the most up to date automation technologies so they can use their specialised skills on protecting our border from those who seek to harm the UK.”

Her announcement came as the wide-ranging Independent Review of Border Force, which she commissioned former Australian immigration minister Alexander Downer to carry out in February 2022, was published.

“Border Force is contending with exceptional challenges, including people coming to the UK illegally via small boats, immigration abuse, illegal drugs, firearms, and organised crime all while protecting our national security,” Mr Downer said.

“Without a doubt everyone I met at Border Force, from the senior team to operation managers and front-line officers are absolutely committed to serving the UK and want the organisation to improve so they can continue being the best countering current and emerging threats.

“The recommendations I have made will have a positive impact on Border Force, making it more resilient to cope with future challenges while providing them with the direction needed to create the improvements they need.”

The New Plan for Immigration: Migration and Border Control Strategy sets out how the digital border could streamline travel and improve security.

Electronic Travel Authorisations will allow more international visitors to use eGates and Digital Customer Accounts will help customers applying for visas have a more streamlined process with clearer access to eVisas needed for travel.

Mr Downing's review identified long queues at Heathrow Airport — with some passengers having to wait for three hours at passport control — as a “significant” problem.

The review said these queues “undermine any customer service efforts” and are “the visible manifestation of more systemic issues, many of which apply to Border Force as a whole”.

He also criticised the agency's ability to deal with the issue of small migrant boats crossing the Channel.

He found it was performing at a “suboptimal level” and stretching its resources in an “unsustainable and highly inefficient way”.

With regard to the small boats migration threat, the review states: “The overall approach to this problem over the past few years has been ineffective and possibly counterproductive in preventing these journeys.

Watch: The National checks out Heathrow travel chaos

Watch: The National checks out Heathrow travel chaos

“The Border Force Maritime command has been drawn into a challenge that it is ill-equipped to deal with and yet all consuming.”

It adds that the current resources needed are “not sustainable” and its boats were not designed for conducting search and rescue operations.

The review states that “the problem of illegal entry by small boats is not solvable in the Channel by Border Force”, and “a whole-system approach is needed”.

The review suggests the New Plan for Immigration could help tackle the issue “albeit with some challenges and risks remaining”.

A stronger sense of purpose, professionalism, team skills and planning is needed to allow Border Force to face challenges on the front foot, such as Heathrow passenger queues and small boats, according to the recommendations.

Other recommendations include better workforce planning and a proper understanding of the needs of the organisation, including consistent standards and operating procedures across different ports.

Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper described the review as “incredibly damning” as it shows the organisation is “stuck in a cycle of crisis management, and is failing to deliver the basics”.

“It shows how Priti Patel has totally failed to get any grip of Britain’s borders or make sure that there are proper systems in place,” she said.

Updated: June 20, 2023, 1:13 PM