What is the Digital Borders Program?

Do you need immigration help or advice?







Do you need immigration help or advice?







The 2025 UK Border Strategy plans to create ‘the most effective border in the world with new technology to improve security and efficiency. The UK Border Force still uses wildly out-of-date technology to decide who is allowed to enter the country which was set to be updated by March 2019. A record of failing digital programs that run out of control hasn’t yet been improved; the Home Office’s digital borders program two year delay has already cost the country over £100 million.

In the Home Office’s report introducing the Digital Services at the Border (DSAB) programme, primary benefits were outlined. This included to ‘enhance the security of the UK; gather and act on data from those people and entities crossing the border, both inbound and out; and provide timely and accurate data to those who need to access/use it.’

Despite plans to be in full force and effect by March 2019, the Home Office has pushed back the delivery of the programme to March 2022. The delay has increased the costs by £173 million. But what are digital borders and who are they benefiting?

Digital borders explained

Digital borders mean that technology is used to share information about passengers even before they board transport leaving for the UK. To do so, for example, gates using facial recognition can be used by police and Border Force to identify people and verify whether or not they are a threat. If suspected criminals attempt to travel to the UK, the right authorities should be immediately notified to decide on the right course of action.

As the report published by the National Audit Office (NAO) indicates, there are two main objectives that the government has in trying to make the UK border more secure. Firstly, ‘to protect the public from terrorism, crime, illegal immigration, trafficking and the importation of illegal goods’, and secondly ‘to facilitate the legitimate movement of people and goods across the border as quickly as possible.’

To achieve these aims the government has been working on creating digital borders, which use advanced technological solutions at border control. 

Meg Hillier, the chair of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), said that digitising the UK’s borders is ‘crucial to protecting the public from terrorism, crime, illegal immigration and trafficking, and crucial to facilitating legitimate movement across the border.’ 

The government has been working on creating digital borders
The government has been working on creating digital borders [Image source: Los Angeles Times]

Moreover, permissions such as visas or settled status, which allow arrival in the UK, would be issued in a digital form. Digital borders would ensure that only those who have a legal right to enter the UK can do so. 

The UK is dependant on the new system to ‘meet new demands on border management arising from the UK’s decision to leave the EU’, reveals the Comptroller and Auditor General of the NAO. He further writes that ‘all passengers arriving from outside the Common Travel Area will need to demonstrate their immigration status when crossing the border.’

Migrants concerned

It seems like the DSAB project seeks to put people in several categories. Indeed, the new system decides on societal inclusion and exclusion. Based on travellers belonging to a certain group, entering the UK might be easier for some than for others. Those who end up deemed ‘undesirable’ may experience obstacles when trying to reach the UK. 

Given how the Home Office has been trying to mitigate migration, it is possible that migrants will face additional barriers when embarking on a journey to the UK. 

Furthermore, even though DSAB is supposed to increase efficiency and provide travellers with a faster travel experience, concerns have been raised as to whether it will be able to cope with high passenger traffic. 

A report released by the National Audit Office (NAO) said ‘there is no proof that systems of DSAB programme can cope with passenger volumes that existed prior to Covid-19, let alone the 6% annual growth in the volume of passengers.’

It is possible that migrants will face additional barriers when embarking on a journey to the UK. 

For the time being, within DSAB’s Border Crossing system, 300 people work at seven border locations, despite plans to reach 7,000 persons at 56 locations by June 2021.

Only providing digital proof of a person’s immigration status, and relying on a system that doesn’t seem to have the ability to operate at scale will always disproportionately impact migrants, who are impacted by borders most heavily.

Digital borders burden taxpayers

As the new system is technically complex, implementing it is high-priced. The initial total expected cost to the Home Office of building systems within the DSAB was £311 million, reveals a report published in December 2020 by the Comptroller and Auditor General of the NAO.

The government’s failure to deliver the project in March 2019, however, resulted in an additional cost of £173 million. If all the requirements needed for the program to be fully operational are not met by the new deadline of March 2022 this price could further increase. 

A report released by the National Audit Office (NAO) said ‘there is no proof that systems of DSAB programme can cope with passenger volumes that existed prior to Covid-19

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) criticised the government, saying: ‘The Home Office has presided over a litany of failure in nearly 20 years of non-delivery of digital border programmes, with significant delays introducing additional costs to taxpayers.’

Concerns have been raised as to whether the new system will be able to cope with high passenger traffic. [Image source: Hospitality & Catering news]

Contribution to the 2025 Border Strategy

The 2025 UK Border Strategy was introduced in December 2020. It aims to make the UK’s border the world’s most effective border by 2025. As the strategy explains, the UK border is dependent on a large number of bodies thus effective data sharing is crucial. New technologies and the creation of digital borders can facilitate that. The document underlines the importance of using advanced data and modern technologies, for example, data analytics and biometrics. 

The Home Office has presided over a litany of failure in nearly 20 years of non-delivery of digital border programmes, with significant delays introducing additional costs to taxpayers.

Technology is necessary for improving the efficiency of the UK’s Border Force, and, as PAC said: ‘The Digital Services at the Border (DSAB) programme is crucial to delivering the Department’s overall objectives for national security at the border’. 

The government believes that digital borders will make the UK safer, but so far millions of pounds have been spent and not much progress has been achieved. It, therefore, seems like taxpayers’ money is being spent on solutions that not only do not make them feel any safer. Given how hard the Home Office has been trying to reduce migration, there is a risk that digital borders will only further reinforce anti-immigration attitudes with far less room for human intervention.

[Header image: Yorkshire Post]