“Alternative arrangements for the Irish border” is a euphemism for red tape and mass surveillance

The fabled “alternative arrangements” for the Irish border have come to prominence again, following the announcement from Prime Minister Theresa May that the government would “be under a legal obligation to seek to conclude alternative arrangements” to the Irish backstop by the end of 2020.

Quite what “a legal obligation to seek” something actually means is unclear. What is also unclear is what these “alternative arrangements” might actually mean in practice. Disgracefully, the British government has forced customs experts, and bodies representing local commercial interests, to sign non-disclosure agreements to prohibit them discussing these in detail with the public.

However, the composition of the “Alternative Arrangements Commission” provides some strong clues as to what these arrangements might be. The group, chaired by Conservative MPs Nicky Morgan and Greg Hands, has been convened to discuss ways of “[avoiding] physical infrastructure at the border via consideration of comprehensive customs cooperation arrangements, facilitative arrangements and technologies”.

The group consists of a “parliamentary commission”, including Brexiteer politicians such as Kate Hoey, Iain Duncan Smith, Jacob Rees-Mogg and David Davis. There is also local involvement from the likes of DUP MPs Emma Little-Pengelly and Nigel Dodds, as well as former UUP leader Lord Trimble.

The group also has a “technical panel”, which consists of customs and trade advisers, and representatives from the technology sector. It is the previous statements of this panel that provide the most significant suggestion as to what these arrangements would actually be, and those in particular of customs expert Lars Karlsson.

Mr. Karlsson, in his research paper for the European Parliament’s Committee on Constitutional Affairs, and subsequent blog post, outlined his proposals for how a hard border in Ireland after Brexit might work for goods and people.

For goods, the proposals involve cross-border traders joining a “trusted trader scheme”, which would allow them to report the time that goods would cross the border and submit the required paperwork electronically. Being part of the trusted trader scheme would be subject to registration and vetting.

The inclusion of Frank Dunsmuir, Fujitsu’s Industry Lead for Customs and Borders, suggests that the “Drive Through Border” solution outlined in their February 2019 paper may be under consideration. Under this solution, a tracking device in each vehicle crossing the border would automatically submit data to the relevant authorities when it crosses a “geo fence” (i.e. the border). Mr. Karlsson also envisages surveillance technology such as number plate readers, RFID technology and CCTV cameras being required to monitor the border.

What is being discussed by both Lars Karlsson and Fujitsu wouldn’t require much in the way of new technology. The Swiss Federal Customs Administration released the QuickZoll app last year, which allows tourists crossing the border to pay duties on imported goods. The app is part of the Swiss government’s overhaul to its customs service, which is due to conclude in 2026.

The “Drive Through Border” solution may require additional functionality over what the QuickZoll app provides, but geo-fencing and paying customs duties through mobile technologies are not new. The idea that distributed database technology (i.e. “blockchain”) might play some transformative role in making customs formalities more efficient is absurd.

These proposals are clearly worse than the existing status quo, with an open border and regulatory alignment each side of the border.

Firstly, these proposals place a significant administrative burden on businesses trading across the border. There would be the bureaucracy involved with joining the “trusted trader” program and its attendant vetting. Many traders would lack the resources to do this in-house, and would have to incur costs by employing external consultants to assist. These proposals would also involve placing surveillance technology on the border.

These proposals would necessarily involve inspections on goods crossing the border. There needs to be a means of checking that the goods physically crossing the border match with what is being declared, and it is impractical to carry out these investigations any great distance from the border. These types of checks could only be eliminated through technological means if there was technology capable of ensuring that people were telling the truth.

However, with the development that the EU is trialling facial recognition “lie detector” technology on the borders of Hungary, Greece and Latvia, perhaps the future of cross border trade in Ireland will involve traders squinting at their phones, trying to look honest whilst they convince an artificial intelligence that they are, in fact, legitimately carrying cheese to County Monaghan.

There may need to be a substantial number of safety and hygiene checks on food and animal products crossing the border. The single commodity traded the most over the border is milk. Under EU rules, at least 50% of consignments need to be checked, including tests for salmonella and aflatoxins, which would take a substantial amount of time and may eliminate much of the cross border trade that rely on just-in-time supply chains.

With regards to the movement of people across the border, things take perhaps even more of a Black Mirror turn. Karlsson’s proposals on the movement of people include surveillance techniques such as number plate recognition and RFID technology.

However, the British government has also been in talks with Iproov, a facial recognition startup regarding a concept that would see cross-border travellers go through passport formalities through “self-serve” technology. In other words, your smartphone would perform the role of a border guard.

It will certainly add to the fun of a family trip to Donegal, trying to convince my children to look into the border control app. “Don’t smile, and look as honest as you can. We don’t want Skynet to think we’ve got an illicit box of chlorinated chicken in the boot.”

There would appear to be little moral difference between such a system, and adopting the system in China where virtually all citizens are included in a facial recognition database, and their movements tracked.

Lars Karlsson is a key figure in advocating the feasibility of “solving the Irish border issue” through technological means. Yet he has conceded that “remaining in the EU is a better solution from a border perspective.” There are no “alternative arrangements” to the current status quo that could ever mitigate the losses that cross border traders, commuters and travellers would suffer in the event of a hard border.

However, to focus on the technological challenges of these “alternative arrangements” is to miss the point entirely. None of the technological solutions being discussed are technologically unfeasible. The issue is a moral and ethical one. To implement all of the ideas that are being discussed would, in addition to the red tape and bureaucracy imposed on business, be tantamount to the creation of a surveillance state.

The time for polite euphemism is over. When British politicians refer to “alternative arrangements for the Irish border”, they are calling for invasive technology that is incompatible with living in a free society. When they talk about “political will”, they are referring to the willingness of the people crossing the border to submit to this treatment, and the will to compel compliance if they resist.

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