The UK and the EU may have negotiated a draft Brexit withdrawal agreement, but it is still unclear how they propose to manage the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland following the transition.
The Irish question is arguably Brexit’s stickiest, as British Prime Minister Theresa May seeks both to satisfy Brexiteers who want to leave the customs union entirely and to reassure those worried a hard border could threaten the hard-fought-for peace on the Emerald Isle.
The Good Friday agreement in 1998 brought peace to the divided island and eventually the removal of military checkpoints along the 499km (310 miles) border. The open border between north and south is, as the Irish government has said, “the most tangible symbol of the Peace Process”.
As she tries to woo Eurosceptics and get her draft deal through parliament, May has again suggested technology could provide the answer to the border conundrum. In a cabinet meeting on Tuesday, ministers are said to have discussed “alternative arrangements” that could replace the backstop due to kick in at the end of the transition, to ensure there is no hard border.
“One possible alternative arrangement could involve technological solutions,” the Prime minister’s spokesman said after the meeting.
So how, in practice, could technology preserve the integrity of EU border checks, while ensuring there is no hard border?
The UK government and the Conservative party-affiliated European Research Group (ERG) have been looking at possible solutions. There are three key areas that traditionally need to be addressed: product compliance with EU food and goods standards; the collection of tariffs and taxes; and preventing people smuggling and illegal immigration.
The EU has placed great emphasis on member states achieving and maintaining high food standards as anything that enters the food chain may be a danger to human health. This includes baby food, poultry, meat, animal feed, even medicines and more.
One proposed idea is that the UK would maintain the same food standards as the EU, and then use an advanced goods tracking solution that provides full traceability. In this way, the EU could be reassured goods entering its member states are compliant.
The issue of taxation also requires precise goods tracking. The EU customs union has a fixed rate of taxation for member states but will need to tax goods coming from non-members differently.
The proposed solution involves a blend of using blockchain and GPS technology. The blockchain is the technology behind the many emerging cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin. It is a digital ledger that keeps a record of all transactions. Every new change has to be cross-referenced in multiple digital locations, which improves security by making fraud near impossible.
Manufacturers and distributors would use blockchains for their different goods, and this would be a live record of what the goods are, the number of goods, where they are currently are and more. This blockchain information would be shared with EU customs.
Each batch of goods, or shipping container or vehicle carrying the goods, would have a GPS tracking device. These utilise satellite technology to give real-time location details which would be constantly updated into the blockchain.
The great benefit of this is that by tracking goods from their time of departure and throughout their journey until delivery, they can be identified as being EU compliant and have the correct taxation rates applied thus removing the need for a physical check at an EU border.
Another major concern is criminals, people travelling across the border who are associated with a crime such as drug-dealing or smuggling, or even terrorism.
At automated ‘soft borders’, facial recognition technology (FRT) can be implemented to identify the driver of a vehicle. FRT works by having a driver stop at a crossing. He or she must then turn to look at a camera which would check their likeness on a computer database and verify who the person is by cross-referencing with their passport details, vehicle ownership and criminal record.
This checking system would be similar to that now used at airports for Passport Control. Anybody whose profile is flagged could be called for questioning by the British police or Irish Garda. Advanced FRT can track people who are in motion, and not just stationary in front of a camera, so this technology can be extended to monitor passengers in the front and rear passenger seats.
Facial recognition can be used in conjunction with automatic number plate recognition (ANPR), which can read a vehicle licence plate and check on a computer database to see if it is stolen or has any outstanding parking or speeding fines or if it is associated with criminal activity. It can also keep a record of all borders that a vehicle passes which may be useful for tracking and identifying any suspicious behaviour.
If the UK government opts for the set-up and implementation of such widescale technology then it will have multiple challenges. However, whilst there is still uncertainty about what Brexit will mean for Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland what is so encouraging is that technology is being actively sought to maintain a soft border and provide a peaceful solution for the future of the island.