Want to travel abroad? Computer says ‘No’
If Nick Clegg is serious about having a bonfire of repressive laws, he might want to chuck on the e-Borders scheme.
Yesterday, Britain’s deputy prime minister Nick Clegg announced that there will be a ‘great repeal act’ in order to scrap some ‘intrusive laws’. Yet while he discussed reining in the previous New Labour government’s more obvious attacks on our liberties – such as ID cards, the DNA database and Contact Point – he didn’t mention its e-Borders scheme. Dubbed the ‘terrorist detector’ database, the scheme involves monitoring the movements of all individuals who cross a border in the UK.
‘Embarkation controls’ – which monitored all individuals who left Britain – were phased out by the last Tory government and then finally came to an end under New Labour in 1998. That paper-based system of monitoring people’s movements was deemed by the authorities to be too unwieldy and inefficient. However, following the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, and the availability of new-and-improved computer-processing power, the New Labour government announced its aim to introduce twenty-first century embarkation controls, ‘to transform our border control to ensure greater security, effectiveness, and efficiency’. ‘To do so’, the government said, ‘we will make full use of the latest electronic technology to provide a way of collecting and analysing information on everyone who travels to or from the United Kingdom’.
And they really meant everyone. The plan is that by 2014 the new embarkation controls will include not only all ordinary holidaymakers and business passengers, but also fishermen, those taking a weekend cruise on a yacht that passes into British waters, anyone flying in a private plane near the UK, and even people swimming the English Channel – all will have to notify the state of their travel plans in advance over the internet, answering a total of 53 questions about themselves and their journey, including where they were born, the number of people they are travelling with, and whether they are travelling with family and/or friends. You face a fine of £5,000 if you fail to follow procedures.
Once the information is submitted, either by individuals or – for the vast majority of us – by travel providers when we book our tickets to go abroad, it is cross-checked against a database of our previous holidays and trips abroad over the past 10 years and against ‘watchlists to identify persons of interest’. Only then can an ‘exit visa’ be officially granted.
While the main ‘persons of interest’ were initially terrorist suspects and illegal immigrants, the list of ‘individuals who pose a risk’ has been continually expanded. A paedophile ‘watchlist’ has been introduced. And joining the ranks of paedos and terror suspects as ‘persons of interest’ are football hooligans, people with drink problems, and those deemed by airlines to have exhibited ‘air rage’ on previous journeys. Indeed, anyone judged to be potentially ‘disruptive’ can now flash up as a ‘person of interest’ to the state.
By the end of this year, it is estimated that 95 per cent of all people travelling internationally to and from the UK will be monitored by the e-Borders system, 60 per cent of whom will be UK travellers going abroad on holiday or for business reasons. By 2014, there will be 100 per cent blanket coverage. Last year, 48,682 individuals were investigated as a result of the e-Borders system: 2,000 individuals were arrested by police, and 1,000 were denied entry into Britain. Yet despite these figures, in the whole time that the e-Borders system has been in place it has not once, as the Daily Mail reports, led to the arrest of a terror suspect.
Rather than investigating real crimes, or pursuing a targeted-intelligence approach to certain individuals, the state is monitoring everyone’s travel behaviour in order to try to spot suspicious patterns. Real detective work is giving way to the watchful, suspicious eye of a low-paid army of 250 ‘match analysts’, who, in a job that requires two GCSEs and an ability to use the ‘basic desktop functions’ of a computer and ‘follow appropriate procedures’, plough through computer-generated alerts and are encouraged to see all travellers as suspects until investigations prove that we have authentic reasons for flying to Spain, Pakistan, Australia or wherever. Such a system represents the worst of all worlds: it fails to target effectively individuals about whom the state has genuine suspicions, and instead brings every single traveller under the watchful eye of the authorities.
If Nick Clegg decides not to hurl the e-Borders scheme on to his much talked-about bonfire of repressive laws, his government could still find itself in trouble. After all, as some campaigners have pointed out, European Union law stipulates that EU citizens should be able ‘legitimately’ to withhold personal details from the UK government and still be granted permission to enter or leave Britain. A Home Affairs Committee report admits that the New Labour government failed to hold ‘serious discussions with the European Commission about the e-Borders programme… The e-Borders programme is therefore, as far as we can ascertain, likely to be illegal under the EU Treaty.’
At present, however, the scheme seems to be on track to achieve its aim of blanket coverage of all individuals crossing borders by 2014. In response to the requirement that even those travelling on private yachts must answer the government’s 53 questions and be cross-checked against ‘watch-lists’, a representative from the Royal Yachting Association said: ‘From a recreational, leisure, boating point-of-view, filling in paper work detailing your exact travel plans every time you cross a border is not desirable… Often the attraction of boat cruising is the freedom it brings – these plans appear to challenge this.’
True – and that feeling of freedom is not just applicable to recreational boaters, but to all of us. For the majority of people, the attraction of travelling abroad is the ‘freedom it brings’ – the freedom to explore new places and cultures or simply to enjoy one too many absinthes on a weekend trip to Prague. However, that relative freedom of global travel is increasingly seen by the authorities as something sinister: if we’re not potential terrorists, then we could be travelling abroad to abuse children, engage in ‘air rage’, or take part in a football-related punch-up. The freedom to travel risks becoming a state-sanctioned treat, which we will receive if we have a proven track record of good behaviour.
Patrick Hayes is a co-founder of the Institute of Ideas’ Current Affairs Forum and one of the organisers of the Battle of Ideas festival.
Previously on spiked
Nathalie Rothschild felt that the UK government’s response to the pants bomber showed the madness of the war on terror. She also said x-ray airport scanners are a naked assault on our right to privacy. Frank Furedi talked to Brendan O’Neill about his book, Invitation to Terror. Faisal Devji said Osama bin Laden merely speaks through Western dummies. Dolan Cummings argued that radicalisation is a good thing. Or read more at spiked issue War on Terror.
To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.