In the UK's quest to avoid a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, Fujitsu has reportedly pitched an artificial intelligence-driven process that analyses drivers' journeys and even social media posts.
According to The Sun, citing a leaked briefing, the Japanese firm this month issued ministers and MPs with a proposal titled "Drive Through Border".
The border issue is the main sticking point in the Brexit negotiations: the UK government has pledged to avoid a hard border, including physical infrastructure and related checks and controls, between the northeastern UK chunk, Northern Ireland, and EU member state the Republic of Ireland to its west and south.
But it is proving difficult to agree, or even identify, a workable solution. Politicians have consistently floated the idea of "high-tech solutions" to solve the problem, but few actual proposals have been made public.
Fujitsu's idea, The Sun reported, includes a system for registered users to pay tariffs online in advance, along with a GPS tracking system to monitor vehicles on designated routes combined with geo-fencing tech at the border.
The firm is also reported to be proposing extra CCTV and number plate recognition cameras at the border, which it is ostensibly* pitching as the sole physical infrastructure there. And, given that drivers have to use designated routes, it's possible the proposal is to keep these cams to a minimum.
Part of the tracking system will, according to the leaked doc, involve identifying and flagging suspect vehicles with AI-driven analysis. This will, apparently, look at the driver's journey "as as well as a wide array of other information, including social media posts".
No further details were given on what red alerts the algorithm will be trained to spot – presumably potential smugglers would be advised not to post their plans to Facebook.
Meanwhile – in what appears to be an attempt to sidestep the need for buildings at the border – customs officials that want to carry out spot checks on "suspicious vehicles" will be able to order them to re-route to inspection depots that are "suspicious" away from the boundary.
A diagram from the proposal was shared on Twitter by political sociologist Katy Hayward, which shows an app on which hauliers accept jobs and are then tracked across the border until they complete the job on the other side.
The claim from Fujitsu about its Drive Through Border Concept:— Katy Hayward (@hayward_katy) February 6, 2019
'it avoids physical checks on the border
by using a tracking system
on designated routes via GPS
as well as number recognition cameras'.
[Hint: the reference to **on** the border is the critical bit]
But Hayward questioned whether this would be a workable solution, noting that it limited drivers to "designated routes" and that the system for advance registration might be costly for smaller firms.
The idea is only in its early stages at the moment, with a proof of concept said to be planned for a trial by 29 March, which will involve 100 hauliers.
However, it is unlikely to meet everyone's definition of no physical infrastructure at the border – and it is understood that the government has ruled out this exact idea.
Neither would the prospect of a proliferation of state surveillance mechanisms on the island, which is particularly unpopular in Northern Ireland.
Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) has been used with success at the border between Norway and Sweden, and it is in widespread use in the UK – but that hasn't been without criticism.
The UK's Surveillance Camera Commissioner Tony Porter has questioned "whether the police understand the volume of misreads or missed reads on the database".
Even with a quoted accuracy of more than 97 per cent, the number of plates checked in the UK (25 million to 35 million a day) means this equates to between 750,000 and 1.2 million misreads per day.
Cameras and checkpoints have also been suggested as a possible target and recruitment tool for terrorists; Northern Ireland's deputy police chief in December 2017 told MPs that border infrastructure "would be an obvious place for dissident groups to rally around and also to attack".
Perhaps one thing going in the Fujitsu report's favour, though, is that there appears to be no mention of blockchain. We've asked both the Japanese firm and the Department for Exiting the European Union for comment. ®
Updated at 1147UTC to add:
Fujitsu said it had been working on proof-of-concepts for border flows after Brexit for some time, pointing to a broader white paper (PDF) it published in autumn last year.
The firm's spokesperson told The Reg: "We have continued to develop our Drive Through Border concept in relation to the Northern Irish Border which we are looking to validate as a viable solution to allow an open free flowing border. Our proof-of-concept does not include the use of cameras, as has been inaccurately reported in the media."
Updated to add at 1330 UTC:
A DExEU spokesperson said:"We have been clear that we will not consider any proposals that include new border infrastructure in Northern Ireland.
"This proposal was not taken forward as it does not work for the unique circumstances of the Northern Ireland border."