Independent chief inspector of Borders and Immigration has called for plans for the replacement of Home Office immigration intelligence system Semaphore to be “revisited and firmed up.”
The call was made in the recommendations in a report published by the independent chief inspector of Borders and Immigration, David Bolt.
On Semaphore, it said the Home Office should ensure that “plans for the replacement of Semaphore are revisited and firmed up (with the user requirement updated and with published delivery dates) and, pending its replacement, maintenance and support for Semaphore is prioritised, with issues about access quickly resolved and with some form of assurance (in lieu of an audit function) that its use is controlled.”
The report examined the Home Office’s Border and Immigration functions usage of data recommending that the Home Office re-establishes the Exit Checks programme driving the improvements needed in data quality and completeness.
The Home Office uses the Semaphore system to collect data from carriers and check for persons of interest before they arrive at the border. This system began life in 2004 and the government plans to replace it by March 2019.
In 2010, the UK Border Agency created the National Border Targeting Centre (NBTC) to support an intelligence-led approach to its borders and immigration functions. NBTC was given the task of monitoring Semaphore and alerting the relevant agency, for example the police, where the system had identified a threat to border security or a passenger of interest. At the time of the inspection, NBTC continued to manage the Semaphore system and produce alerts.
The NBTC Data Governance team acts as system administrator for remote access users of Semaphore. At the time of the inspection, there were around 600 remote access licences.
The Inspector assessed what data was being collected, the gaps and what was being done to fill them, and at what the Home Office was able to achieve from its analysis of the data.
The re-introduction of exit checks, which had been phased out in the 1990s, was announced in the 2010 ‘Programme for government’. The Home Office subsequently committed to delivering “100% exit checks” by March 2015. However, the Home Affairs Committee, reporting in early 2015, expressed concerns that “this would not be achieved and highlighted that a number of significant exclusions had crept into the government’s pledge”.
Between April 2015 and March 2017, the Home Office received over 607m UK data records relating to outbound travel, the vast majority of which were UK or EEA nationals.
The data collected from passengers travelling to and from the UK were transmitted by carriers and received directly into the Semaphore database. On receipt, the data was checked against lists of persons of interest, including for national security and law enforcement reasons.
By June 2015, the report said, the Home Office was reporting 100% coverage of outbound routes “within scope” of its Exit Check programme. Yet, outbound travel via general aviation and general maritime were excluded from scope, as were departures via the Common Travel Area (CTA). Meanwhile, as at June 2017, gaps remained in data collection for inbound sea ferries and for rail routes, as well as for arrivals via the CTA.
Between 2014 and 2015, as part of the Exit Checks programme, the Home Office developed the Initial Status Analysis (ISA) database. The digital catalogue matches inbound and outbound travel data received via Semaphore with data recorded on other Home Office immigration-related systems. The first requirement of the data matching is to produce an “identity”. This “identity” can then be used to check the identified person’s immigration compliance status.
According to the report the causes of the shortcomings in the ISA system lay in “problems with data quality and gaps in data collection”..
Bolt said, “the Home Office had over-promised when setting out its plans for exit checks, and then closed the Exit Check Programme prematurely, declaring exit checks to be business as usual when a significant amount of work remained to be done to get full value from them.”.
He added, “This work needed better coordination within the Home Office, and externally with carriers, with other potential contributors to and users of the data, and with Common Travel Area partners. In the meantime, the Home Office needed to be more careful about presenting exit checks as the answer to managing the illegal migrant population, which for now remained wishful thinking”.
The inspection examined the ISA system and looked at how ISA-produced data had been used by the Home Office and by other agencies.
The Home Office retains travel data in Semaphore for five years to enable “watchlisting” checks to be done, after which it is archived to a separate storage area for a further five years.
A senior civil servant told inspectors that the ability to revisit this data was important: “Whilst we may not use data live, we retain the ability to go back and look and analyse again at a later date. API is retained for the period allowed, and is accessed and used for a variety of purposes, not solely for exit check. We are exploring extensively how to use data better, as we know the future is data.”.
The inspection explored:
- The inbound and outbound travel data already available to the Home Office and others via the Semaphore system.
- The efficiency and effectiveness of exit data collection and matching processes.
- The impact on carriers of having to collect exit data, and the Home Office’s relationships with carriers.
- Plans for plugging exit data collection gaps and improving data quality.
- Next steps for exit check data.
The report said, that “it was clear that the operational value of ISA data was severely hamstrung because of problems with data quality and gaps in data collection. The former stem largely from the fact that the data captured prior to travel is what is provided to the carriers for booking purposes by those travelling, and is prone to errors and omissions, unlike data captured from passport swipes on entry, for example”.”
In May 2016, the Exit Check programme was formally closed, and the operation of the ISA system became “business as usual” under a governance Board made up of data specialists and data users.
The report concluded, “Overall, the sense is that the Home Office over-promised when setting out its plans for exit checks, and then closed the Exit Check programme prematurely, declaring exit checks to be “business as usual” when a significant amount of work remained to be done to get full value from them”.
“This work needs better coordination internally, and externally with carriers, with other potential contributors to and users of the data, and with CTA partners. In the meantime, the Home Office should be more careful about presenting exit checks as the answer to managing the illegal migrant population, as, for example, in the case of Foreign National Offenders. Based on this inspection, at present this remains wishful thinking,” the report added.