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The challenge: border security without gridlock

Increasingly sophisticated technology is helping countries struggling to balance security with ease of passage

Special to The Globe and Mail

Businesses that rely on the smooth movement of goods and people across borders may be tempted to think of the Bible: "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle."

If this is an exaggeration, it's not by much. Any company that has had its containers waiting for clearance, or had its executives miss flights because of a few "secondary" questions at the border, knows that what used to be a predictable, if tedious, matter of clearing customs has become increasingly complex and difficult in the world after 9/11.

It's not surprising that technology is rushing to find solutions. Companies around the world are developing new high-tech systems, competing to provide ways to address the need for secure borders while speeding up traffic, easing labour requirements and keeping better track of what and who gets across the line.

The need for stepped-up security has increased border delays, driving up costs and time. It's labour intensive for countries and it doesn't always catch suspected transgressors as effectively as governments would like.

The costs are serious. A study published last year in Canadian Public Policy noted that, between Canada and the United States alone, it has been estimated that border delays cost up to $30-billion a year, in waiting time, warehousing and keeping inventory on hand.

Another study, published in 2006, found that tightened security after the hijacked plane attacks in the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, caused global trade to decline about 1 per cent for every 1 per cent increase in trade costs.

Countries around the world, including Canada, are scrambling to keep up.

Earlier this year, Canada Border Services Agency began rolling out automated border clearance kiosks, starting at Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport in Montreal. These self-service units, which cost more than $220,000 each, let travellers scan their passports (or enhanced ID documents, for travel from the United States) and declaration forms and shopping receipts, allowing them to be breezed through customs more quickly.

And Britain, which has about 200 million people cross its borders each year, juggles between its relatively relaxed borders with its European Union partners, tighter controls for trading partners such as Canada and the United States, and the fact that Britain has come under attack before, including on July 7, 2005, when 52 people were killed in London.

In April of 2011, Britain's Home Office issued a white paper on border security, which stated explicitly the direction that every country is now taking:

"We plan to use technology and intelligence to make the UK's immigration and border controls more targeted and less disruptive for the majority of travellers and businesses."

The need for keeping track of who and what are coming and going is even greater now with the openness and expansion of the European Union, says Patrick Palmer, executive vice-president of marketing and head of Saab Technology Inc. Canada.

In Canada, Saab is marketing a variety of airport, coastal and border security technology systems.

Its technology, which it calls SAFE, is designed to be integrated into countries' existing computer systems, says Everhardus van den Heuvel, Saab Canada's director of strategy and business development.

The system uses sensors to enhance computer and closed circuit television (CCTV) monitoring, so fewer operators are needed to keep track of large areas, Mr. van den Heuvel says.

Technology at borders is important to cut labour costs and make inspection more efficient, says Pierre Strombeck, chief executive officer of Portendo AB, a Swedish technology security company.

Mr. Strombeck says proper use of technology can increase efficiency in border controls from a 40-per-cent success rate to 99.5 per cent.

This year his company, Portendo, started marketing a form of laser technology, focusing on the Asian market. It enables an operator to work at a distance of 10 metres, with a full view of an object being inspected, but not close enough to be harmed, for instance by a bomb.

In some cases, countries concerned about high-conflict borders are shopping for technology from countries with experience. India and the United States, for example, have been looking at Israeli technology - a high-tech five-metre fence running along Israel's border with Egypt, being completed this year. They too, want to put fences along many, if not all, of their borders.

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BORDER/SECURITY TECH

Here's a sampling of what is developing in border control and technology:

Canada

Canada and the United States signed the Beyond the Border agreement aiming to ease passage between our two countries. The agreement calls for expanding the NEXUS program, which allows Canadian and U.S. "trusted travellers" to cross more quickly using a special card..

Europe

A new European external border surveillance system (EUROSUR), is being deployed, promising increased surveillance of the EU's sea and land borders using new technologies, including drones, off-shore sensors, and satellite tracking systems.

Israel

Israel has a booming high-tech industry that markets products around the world. One company, Nice Systems, has products that broadcast video signals from commercial flights to ground control centres during flight. If there is trouble , it can be detected immediately and the plane can be diverted or fighter jets can be scrambled.

Japan

Visitors to Japan can enter and leave using an automated registration gate. .

United States

In May, a group called the Border Security Technology Consortium was formed, aiming to bring smaller companies together to bid on projects and contracts that they might not always qualify for individually under bidding rules.

David Israelson

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THE SERIES

First of a five-part series looking at developments in the movement of people and goods in the era of rapid globalization.

Next Tuesday: The business of mega-bridges

© The Globe and Mail

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