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Home secretary urged to respond to concerns over EU travel systems

Priti Patel is challenged over the various issues relating to new border checks affecting UK residents travelling to the European Union, in aspects such as facial recognition and algorithmic profiling

The UK government has been urged to respond to a number of concerns over rights and liberties of citizens in relation to upcoming border management systems underpinning travel from and to European Union (EU) countries that use technologies such as biometrics and algorithmic-based decision-making.

A letter from the chair of the Justice and Home Affairs Committee, Sally Hamwee, to home secretary Priti Patel noted the committee was “very concerned” about the implications of both systems and stressed there were “ethical, legal, logistical and political challenges” to be addressed ahead of the launch of border checks next year.

The introduction of the European Travel Information and Authorisation System (ETIAS) and the Entry/Exit System (EES) could have “serious consequences” for citizens, the letter said. In addition, it noted the UK was unprepared for the roll-out of the systems.

EES will be used to check most travellers every time they travel to or from EU countries and will use facial and fingerprint biometrics. ETIAS will require most UK citizens to apply online for an authorisation to travel, which will be issued automatically, prior to entering the EU.

“While we acknowledge that, recently, resources have been focused on the immediate impact of withdrawal from the European Union and on the pandemic, we are profoundly concerned about the lack of attention paid to either ETIAS or the EES,” Hamwee said in the letter, dated and published 22 November 2021.

On timescales, the letter also pointed out the lack of a launch date for EES made it difficult for stakeholders to prepare. ETIAS is expected to launch six months after EES. The letter noted the system was due to launch in 2020 and is now expected to be fully operational in the second half of 2022.

Disruption ahead

On EES, Hamwee’s letter noted that EES checks would require a great deal of awareness work to reduce the likelihood of disruption, including engagement with domestic and international stakeholders, beyond the current government plans to simply update travel advice.

Moreover, another warning is that the system will permanently slow the flow of UK vehicles and passengers to and from the EU. The letter noted that under the system’s current design, it would be impossible to carry out checks in vehicles, meaning passengers would have to step into live traffic.

“Continuous EES checks are expected to permanently slow the flow of UK vehicles and passengers to and from the EU. We have heard that in Dover and Folkestone, red tape at borders has an immediate knock-on effect on traffic,” said Hamwee, adding that if Schengen entry checks take more than a few seconds, within minutes cars can’t move forward, with congestion quickly reaching the motorways and then spreading through Kent.

According to the letter, senior representatives from the Port of Dover, Eurotunnel and Eurostar expressed concerns at a committee session about the impact the two EU systems will have on their operations, their customers and communities in Kent. “It is clear from that session that there are serious logistical challenges that can only be solved by targeted interventions by the government,” Hamwee noted.

The letter’s appendices point to potential solutions, such as pre-registration in the EES, to speed up border processes. “While EU law requires registration to be supervised by European border officials, nothing prevents this from taking place away from the border,” the letter said, adding that investment in personnel or in physical or technological infrastructure might be required.

Another solution would involve the government sharing the biometric data it holds on UK citizens with EU countries to eliminate the collection of biometric data by European border officials.

Algorithmic profiling

Regarding ETIAS, which will involve checks against EU and Interpol security databases and algorithmic profiling, the letter warned that “an unknown proportion of UK citizens will lose their right to travel to the EU”.

“ETIAS uses and retains a wide range of personal data and there is no indication what safeguards will be applied or how its profiling algorithm will avoid discrimination”
Sally Hamwee, Justice and Home Affairs Committee

Additionally, since applicants will be subject to profiling, there is a concern people might be discriminated against by the ETIAS algorithm. The system will run an algorithm to compare data provided by the applicant, such as age, sex, nationality, level of education and current occupation, with a set of characteristics of individuals likely to represent an illegal immigration or high epidemic risk.

“ETIAS, which will apply security checks, uses and retains a wide range of personal data and there is no indication what safeguards will be applied or how its profiling algorithm will avoid discrimination on the basis, for instance, of ethnicity,” Hamwee pointed out.

One of the letter’s appendices cited concerns over new border systems such as the Home Office’s Electronic Travel Authorisation (ETA) system, which is due to launch by the end of 2024. The committee noted the Home Office had confirmed the ETA would be similar to ETIAS. However, it said it was still unclear whether the ETA would, like ETIAS, involve algorithmic profiling, and raised concerns over potentially biased datasets used to train the algorithm.

Recommendations issued by the committee included engaging with European authorities to ensure that safeguards were in place to guarantee the fairness and lawfulness of the profiling algorithm under ETIAS, and also clarify what the manual processing of ETIAS applications would involve, as well as what assurances would be in place to protect appelants’ rights to re-apply in case of denials.

The letter also expressed concerns for those who might not be able to navigate the ETIAS application. It made the point that ETIAS applicants must possess assets and skills such as a suitable electronic device and access to reliable connectivity, as well as being computer literate.

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