x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 24 October 2017

Dubai airport's new virtual aquarium tunnel and what it means for the future of border security

Many countries are racing towards the contactless virtual border of the future, but Dubai is leading the way

Virtual borders and biometric scanners equipped with more than 80 cameras will soon make passing through Dubai Airport seamless. Nick Webster / The National
Virtual borders and biometric scanners equipped with more than 80 cameras will soon make passing through Dubai Airport seamless. Nick Webster / The National

Last week, Major Gen Obaid Al Hameeri, deputy director general of Dubai residency and foreign affairs, announced that in the coming years those arriving at Dubai airport can expect "a 100 per cent virtual border where human contact is absent". Make no mistake, this technology is well within the grasp of Dubai’s innovators.

The real implementation challenge isn’t tech but working out how, at a time of heightening threats, these developments can be integrated into the UAE's broader security strategies.

Many countries are racing towards the contactless virtual border of the future. Australia is set to begin technology trials in Canberra airport in the next few years. One Chinese airline has already replaced boarding passes with facial recognition measures. These new technologies make sense given they can confirm identity with greater accuracy than any human.

Dubai airport is no stranger to innovation, it has been a consistent early adopter of new technologies like e-gates. Unsurprisingly then, there is likely to be little resistance to technology driven changes.

Global interconnectedness and integration are key dynamics that have influenced the UAE’s economic and social success. In this context, advocating the primacy of security in border management is naive. And to date border security strategists in each of the Emirates have developed world class border security capabilities while facilitating trade and travel.

Naturally, the residency and foreign affairs department has cast achieving balance between "security, speed and quality of service" as one of the biggest implementation challenges for their new virtual border vision. However, to be truly effective and efficient, these new technologies need to be fully integrated with a range of other systems and processes to ensure border security is maintained. This integration is a complex challenge, especially if it is to ensure resources are focused on managing risks and disrupting threats, rather than developing security measures.

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Nevertheless, the threat environment that the UAE faces is rapidly changing. Recent global changes in irregular migration trends, terrorism threats and transnational organised crime methodologies have illustrated that to deal with extraordinary border security policy challenges governments must be able to act quickly and strategically. These developments have also shown how difficult it is for governments to identify the tipping point at which day-to-day border security challenges become extraordinary policy challenges.

Dubai airport security tunnel. Satish Kumar for The National
Dubai airport security tunnel. Satish Kumar for The National

Collaborative and integrated border security strategies continue to be crucial to national and domestic security. Within its federated model of governance the UAE must be able to rapidly deploy capabilities in response to evolving threats, risks or opportunities. Arguably, when it comes to greater border security collaboration further federalisation of the UAE’s border agencies seems a logical policy choice, especially if the benefits of the innovations at Dubai airport are to be fully realised.

With a federated border security model the UAE could adopt more cohesive practices across all of the emirates and their respective sea, air and land entry points. And facial recognition developments could then be deployed simultaneously across the country.

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At the very least, innovators will need to ensure that future virtual airport border is fully integrated into whole of government border and national security strategy. If it does not do so, there is a real risk that this new border will not disrupt threats but displace them to other points in the border security system.

In the current uncertain times, people expect and value steadfast resolve when it comes to border security. Arguably, this resolve is measured by the general public in terms of their perception of security arrangements. The authorities would be wise not to forget that the "security theatre" associated with airports also has deterrent effects. Ironically, Dubai’s future contactless border may be more secure than ever before, yet not be perceived as so by those it seeks to protect or disrupt.

Dr John Coyne is Head of Border Security at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute