In the run-up to the public sector strikes on November 30th, there was a growing sense of panic regarding the likely situation at Britain’s airports and other border crossing points. There was talk of passengers being stranded miles from home, long delays at airports and passengers forced to remain on board aircraft as immigration queues cleared.
Yet the security implications of all this, with inexperienced civil servants from a range of government departments stepping into the breach, are perhaps the most worrying aspect of the strike. In the run-up to November 30, Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington, John McDonnell, said it was clear large numbers of staff at London Heathrow would be joining the strike.
Although attempts had been made to bring in extra people, he argued that it still meant that safety and security would be "in the hands of workers who are untrained in airport security or, at most, have had an inadequate couple of days’ training."
Many of the security concerns around the drafting in of unskilled resources could have been avoided if a new approach to checking travellers coming into the UK had been put in place ahead of the strikes.
The use of passenger profiling would have eliminated the need for blanket checks, strengthened border security and, through the use of powerful analytics, intelligence and behavioural modelling techniques, reduced the pressure on additional unskilled employees brought in to man border crossing points.
The media furore surrounding the argument between Theresa May and Brodie Clark tended to obscure the fact that the rationale behind the recent controversial borders pilot immigration scheme – cutting queues while at the same time detecting more high risk individuals coming into the UK – is surely the right option to take.
Indeed, the scheme, which used passenger profiling techniques, was proving successful in its primary objective of detecting more high-risk individuals trying to enter the country illegally from across the world – and from Europe, in particular.
As immigration minister, Damian Green, recently said, "The pilot was about changing the way we checked people from Europe and refusals from this group actually went up 33% in this period."
He added, "We were getting regular information from [pilot scheme] management about what was happening, and it was telling us that there was…a 48% increase in fraudulent documents detected and that cocaine seizures and illegal firearms seizures were up."
Passenger profiling offers an increasingly viable alternative to traditional security techniques. At its best, it effectively involves using intelligence, data analytics and behavioural modelling to assess the levels of potential risk individuals may pose.
Many sceptics will have the public believe that passenger profiling is akin to racial profiling which is not only incorrect but is nothing more than scaremongering by those who have not taken the time to understand the concept.
Passenger profiling is about assessing risk, it employs complex algorithms and advanced risk management to evaluate whether an individual is a legitimate traveller and as such should freely pass through our borders or be subject to further scrutiny – and rather than leading to more open borders, it can actually significantly enhance protection.
This kind of profiling is increasingly being deployed around the world – and SAS is involved in delivering the technology that supports it. The concepts behind profiling are well established in a range of industry sectors, including most notably financial services and banking, where it is used to detect counter fraud, to decide whether an individual is a suitable candidate for a mortgage or a loan, or to assess whether a specific transaction should go through.
While safety and security must always be paramount, the operational efficiencies that passenger profiling supports should not be ignored.
Ultimately, with more than 125 million passengers entering the country every year, introducing intelligence-led, targeted checks on higher-risk travellers has to be the common sense approach.
And in the event of a future repeat of the public sector’s day of action, it might help avoid the kind of desperate soul-searching and talk of security breaches that characterised the authorities’ response to the strikes.
By Joanne Taylor, director, Public Security, SAS.