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Cyber attack ruled out as source of UK Border Force outage

An IT outage that caused automated passport control e-gates to crash across the UK has been resolved, with a cyber attack ruled out as the cause

An IT outage that caused the automated passport control e-gates at airports across the UK to crash on 7 May – leading to long delays for travellers entering the country – has been successfully resolved, with government officials ruling out a malicious cyber attack on the UK’s Border Force as the cause.

The outage unfolded on Tuesday evening and caused chaos at London’s Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted airports, as well as Aberdeen, Bristol, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Manchester and Southampton, with arriving passengers reporting queues of over an hour in many cases, and multiple angry travellers taking to social media platforms to voice their frustration.

Many airports were forced to deploy extra staff to assist, while working under its contingency plans, Border Force diverted all available staff to manage passenger flow through the traditional passport control desks.

A spokesperson for the Home Office, which oversees the Border Force, told Computer Weekly that the e-gate systems came back online shortly after midnight.

“As soon as engineers detected a wider system network issue at 19:44pm last night, a large-scale contingency response was activated within six minutes,” they said.

“At no point was border security compromised and there is no indication of malicious cyber activity. We apologise to travellers caught up in disruption and thank our partners, including airlines, for their co-operation and support.”

Besides the e-gates, some policing systems, passport systems and other immigration systems were affected by the nationwide issue affecting the Home Office’s IT organisation, Digital, Data and Technology.

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Computer Weekly understands the Home Office is currently undertaking a probe to determine the cause of the incident and take steps to prevent it from happening again.

“Operating with such complex IT estates, it’s now too difficult and stressful for IT teams to keep operations running smoothly without additional tools,” he said. “With networks’ intense interconnectedness, teams need observability so they can better understand topology and see when a seemingly insignificant issue could lead to a flown blown outage.

“This, paired with AIOps, enables the automation of network monitoring and issue remediation which troubleshoots problems before IT teams are even aware of them – ensuring no drop in employee or customer digital experience,” said Atkinson.

The UK’s automated border gates have been blighted by a number of significant IT outages over the years, most recently on the Spring Bank Holiday Weekend of 2023, when a nationwide IT system issue caused similar problems. Another instance also occurred in September 2021.

The e-gate technology was first rolled out in the late 2000s on a limited basis at major airports, and has since been rolled out much more widely to airports across the country, as well as the Eurostar terminals at St Pancras, Bruxelles-Midi and Paris Gare du Nord. They are open to all travellers over the age of 10, although users under 17 must be accompanied by an adult.

Besides UK citizens, they are also now available to people arriving from Australia, Canada, the European Union and European Economic Area, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea and the US. Citizens of a number of other countries, including Brazil, Chile, Hong Kong, Israel and Malaysia, may use them if they have registered and hold a biometric passport.

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