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Thursday, 27 September, 2001, 15:43 GMT 16:43 UK
UK's surveillance dilemma
Customs
Rigorous checks will cause queues
by BBC News Online's Finlo Rohrer

As Scotland Yard's anti-terrorist branch examines reports suspected hijackers passed through the UK before the attacks, how we monitor those entering the country is under scrutiny.

David Blunkett has admitted that none of the 11 men were under surveillance during their time in the UK.

In fact, the UK is hamstrung by the absence of any formal database of all those who pass through ports, airports and Waterloo's Eurostar terminal every day.


Over recent years this country has relaxed border controls

Chris Yates
Air security expert
There have already been calls for sophisticated technology to be installed at airports to identify potential hijackers and terrorists boarding planes with false passports or false identities.

But experts admit that biometric or face-scanning technology and the ability to electronically check passports and compare against a database will do nothing to prevent "clean" potential terrorists entering the UK.

Individuals who have no previous involvement in terror present one of the most difficult challenges to the security service personnel deciding who is to be put under surveillance in the UK.

Central record

Air security expert Chris Yates, of defence publishers Jane's, described the challenge facing those monitoring the entry points to the UK.

"As a general rule there is no central record of ordinary movements of the greater majority of the public.

"It could be done conceivably but whether it is practical and cost effective is another thing.

"If you just look at Heathrow you are looking at 70m plus passengers every year. Multiply that and it is a huge undertaking."

But while Britain's monitoring of those entering the UK may seem lax, other countries adopt a rigorous approach to security.

"I've been to countries such as South Africa where everybody has their passports checked and the counter has a computer terminal where details are entered in.

Relaxed controls

"The US does check everybody's passport - that is why most airports there have huge queues at immigration. It is possible to do it with high volumes.

"Over recent years this country has relaxed border controls.

"We are never checked when we leave the country and incoming, as a general rule, you hold your passport up to the immigrations people."


British people may think we have a soft entry point but we have a hard outer shell in Europe

Simon Davies
Privacy expert
Mr Yates said the UK authorities were able to single out some travellers for surveillance because of their nationality.

"The immigration authorities watch closely people from certain parts of the world.

"[But] if these people coming in are 'clean' there is no reason for immigration or law enforcement [to do] anything."

Simon Davies, a director of pressure group Privacy and visiting fellow in Information Systems at the London School of Economics, said a database of European passport holders' movements in and out of the UK would be unfair.

"A citizen who has been verified in another country has equal rights in all parts of Europe.

Routine interrogation

"British people may think we have a soft entry point but we have a hard outer shell in Europe.

"Any non-European citizen entering this country knows the amount and level of interrogation and data-checking which is routinely in place."

Civil rights campaigners have long criticised the Echelon system of global eavesdropping on all forms of electronic communication in the search for keywords.

And in the wake of the US attacks, there have been suggestions of suspicious pattern-based monitoring of banking and credit records.

But Mr Davies said it was more important to tackle internal security processes within the UK than institute "wide net" mass electronic surveillance.

Mass surveillance

"It is unnecessary to place the entire citizenry of the world under additional surveillance when relatively minor security precautions could have been put in place.

"We have been down the road of mass surveillance and it simply does not work.

"All such systems can do is to create massive numbers of false leads which divert resources to investigating them.

"If they knew the identities they would already be on a watch list."

He maintained terrorists were so used to having their communications intercepted that they eschewed encryption in favour of esoteric codes and secret languages.

Mr Davies said the aftermath of the US atrocities had created the "political heat for an opportunistic grab for power" by security services who should instead be focusing on an "empirical investigative approach" using improved human intelligence.


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