New control system: Frontex ends pilot project on facial recognition at EU borders

Until now, only asylum seekers and visa applicants had to hand over their biometric data before entering the EU. With an Entry/Exit System, this will be extended to all other travellers from third countries. Border controls will be significantly delayed from 2022. Entry apps and automatic „eGates“ should save this time again.

The EU border agency Frontex has completed a series of tests on the storage and processing of biometric data at land borders. At three checkpoints in Bulgaria and Spain, four fingerprints and the facial image, as well as the date and place of entry or exit, were taken and stored, in addition to the travellers‘ names and documents. The border controls were carried out by volunteers, for which Frontex spent 1.5 million Euros.

The background to the pilot project is the imminent introduction of an Entry/Exit System (EES). All travellers from non-EU countries must register biometrically each time they cross an external EU border. This applies in particular to short-term visa holders and visa-free travellers from around 60 countries.

Additional work for staff and travellers

Biometric scanners should shorten waiting times (Vision-Box).

The effort for the new border control system is enormous. According to Frontex Director Fabrice Leggeri, 1,892 official land, air and sea border crossings need to be equipped with the technology. About a third of these checkpoints are used daily by more than 10,000 travellers, which means that several systems have to be installed there at once. In addition to structural changes, there will also be new tasks for the staff, who will have to be trained accordingly.

With the EES, border controls will also become much more burdensome for travellers. In order to avoid queues, they will have to hand in their data themselves, while border officials will only watch.

According to Frontex, the tested systems can handle up to four travellers at a time under the supervision of only one police officer.

Biometrics app, self-service kiosk and automated locks

Various manufacturers of biometric systems offer solutions for such „eGates“, including the German company secunet or the Thales Group from France. The French biometrics group Idemia has developed the all-round platform „Augmented Borders“, which can also be used for cruise ships. The company was also commissioned by the EU Commission in the „Interoperability“ project to build a „biometrics repository“ that combines facial images and fingerprints from all EU databases.

The hardware and software of the new border control systems must be compatible not only with the EES but also with national systems. Frontex’s pilot project took place in such a simulated environment. A self-service kiosk known as „totem“ was tested, which takes the facial image and fingerprints and reads travel documents. If this procedure is passed successfully, a lock opens automatically.

During the tests, apps on mobile devices were also used to announce an upcoming trip. The stored information is then used when crossing the border.

Control without getting out of the car

The tests in Bulgaria took place at the Turkish and Serbian land borders. At a border crossing with Romania, the authorities had previously tested another EU system for integration in the EES in the SMILE project. In addition to Idemia, the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft was also involved.

A camera scans the faces of people in a car (SMILE).

A SMILE app allowed travellers to import passport data, fingerprints and a facial photo. The SMILE system then matched the data with national and EU border control databases. If the crossing was by car, the driver could remain seated and insert her travel documents into a reader. A camera recorded the vehicle’s number plate, another camera did the facial recognition. If the information matched the pre-registered data, the border opened.

The system should also work for bus journeys. Before a trip, a travel group can be created with the SMILE app, which all participants join by invitation and then enter their biometric data. These are later checked by a border guard on the bus. The SMILE mobile device used for this reads the documents from the app and makes a facial image comparison. The number plate is also scanned automatically on the bus.

Significant delay of further systems

Originally, the EES was supposed to be operational by May 2022, but the date is likely to be delayed to the end of next year. This is according to a letter from the European agency for the operational management of large-scale IT systems in the security sector, eu-Lisa. The contractors, two consortia of several European firms, are primarily responsible for the delays, it says. The companies attribute this, among other things, to delivery problems for memory chips and other hardware.

Some EU member states have also not yet started with the technical equipment of their border crossings. One of the reasons given for this is that eu-Lisa was too late in providing information about the interfaces needed for the central EES. This also delays the tests of the entire EES system with the participating countries, which were actually planned for spring. Finally, countries like Germany are also lagging behind with the necessary legislation for the new biometric border controls.

The delay of the EES in turn has an impact on other ambitious EU projects. The European Travel Information and Authorisation System (ETIAS), through which every entry into the EU must be declared, was also supposed to go into operation next year. This too has now been postponed. This in turn has an impact on the „Interoperability“ project, which links other EU databases with EES and ETIAS.

Image: Patricia De Melo Moreira/ EU Commission.

Autor: Matthias Monroy

Knowledge worker, activist, editor of the German civil rights journal Bürgerrechte & Polizei/CILIP.