[Exclusive Feature] How Customs and Immigration Officials can Benefit From Data Analytics

Shaun Barry, Global Director, Fraud & Security Intelligence, SAS Institute

As countries worldwide have started reopening their borders, new questions have surfaced. Border control authorities are now facing more complex challenges because they have to consider the dynamic health control measures which vary from country to country.

With its status as an air hub in Southeast Asia, Singapore plays an essential role in customs clearance in the region and needs the ability to provide a secure, uninterrupted and business-friendly trade hub. It is, therefore, critical for government agencies in the country to ensure they have the proper guidelines in place to mitigate the spread of Covid-19 in order to enable safer travel now and in the future. 

To gain further insights on the topic, CIO World Asia spoke with Shaun Barry, Global Director, Fraud & Security Intelligence, SAS Institute to share more on border control changes throughout the pandemic cycle, importance of automation border security, criticality of data analytics in risk identification and providing support to government bodies to manage COVID-19 challenges. 

Border Control Changes In Pre, During & Post COVID-19 

Custom officials are always under intense pressure and the pandemic has made that pressure even greater. What kind of pressures are they under? There are two sides that are pulling at you. One being business leaders and pressure from citizens to make business as well as international travel happen quickly. There are businesses that want to import and export goods in and out of the country very quickly. They also have people that want to travel in and out of the country freely without disruption. 

On the other hand, custom officials have a very important job in protecting their country from risks of fraud, terrorism, illegal goods or substances and revenue (from customs perspective). The pandemic made these pressures even greater by realising that if governments are not smart, they would slow down commerce, trade and travel. 

“There is a belief that in order to make accurate decisions, you have to be slow but you can also be speedy and accurate as well,” says Shaun Barry, Global Director, Fraud & Security Intelligence, SAS Institute.

Now that the world is opening back up and trade is booming again, there is an even greater pressure than ever to get goods to market quickly. Every country is experiencing goods shortages even in goods that are supposedly not hard to find but due to supply chain disruption, these products are not as available in stores as they should be. 

From a business perspective, businesses want to get goods to market at a quick rate so when they transit into a country, the pressure is even greater because there is a high demand for goods right now. Customers want their products to be available in store all the time. This is also the same for travel. Now that borders are open and travel is slowly resuming back to pre-pandemic days, people want to be able to get through airports quickly, clear immigration and customs quickly without disruption. 

“From a CIO perspective, you have to be able to give your customers or your business clients the right tools to be able to make decisions accurately and quickly.”

Shaun Barry, Global Director, Fraud & Security Intelligence, SAS Institute.

Generally, companies are having a difficult time trying to get their goods to market as fast as they would like or are experiencing a slower clearance at customs. One such example would be Changi Airport mass hiring candidates for over 6000 staff positions to be able to have the manpower to handle incoming and outgoing travellers. This is due to the fact that they had to let go of a large percentage of their manpower during the pandemic. 

Due to labour shortages all around the world, there is a need to automate certain decision-making processes so that they are able to do things smarter. Governments realised during the pandemic that this is a critical function which they need to invest in. Hence why, governmental organizations all over the world are starting to place significant funds towards automating customs and immigrations. For example, Canada has just passed a budget where they have $1billion CAD for automation and modernization of their immigration and customs system.

Data Analytics In Assessing, Addressing & Mitigating Risks   

What customs officials would be concerned about is money. The goods that are coming into the country, are they being taxed at the appropriate level and is the country generating enough revenue to support its people? 

From the immigration perspective, they would be looking at risks such as health, terrorism, contraband, drugs, risks of overstaying visa and many others. From a CIO perspective, there is data everywhere to help determine and assess what those risks are. The challenge as a CIO is in trying to collect all that data and giving it to customs and immigration officials at the right time and in the right format. This is so that customs officials can make really smart and well-informed decisions at the right time in terms of allowing goods or people to come in to the country. 

In the future, customs officials can take images of all cargo containers and have computer vision determine if the images are consistent with the types of data sent by the importers. If the goods being brought in are bicycles, they have to make sure that it is not something else. This is why the CIO’s data collection is extremely important as it helps them to identify risks – either high risk or low risk. The information must be given to customs officials so that they can make smart decisions. Data in this case is being collected and analysed so that analytics can be used to augment judgements. 

“The nations that invest in analytics for customs and immigrations and trade are going to thrive in the 21st century. Those who do not invest are going to lag behind very significantly,” says Shaun Barry, Global Director, Fraud & Security Intelligence, SAS Institute.

CIOs will need to go in and gather data from different places; IT systems, sensors, images and satellite and bring it all together at the right time and present it to customs officials in a way that they can understand it. Part of the CIO’s challenge in acquiring data from so many different places is linking all of it so that an individual importer, citizen or person so that they can use it to pass through. All of this data management is not easy or simple but it is extremely critical. 

Importance Of Automation In Enhancing Border Security 

Automation is a vital economic development tool. As a country, if they are able to make trade and travel easy as well as low risk, they will be competitive in the global marketplace. If countries and businesses do not invest in that, they will create friction and make it hard for importers to come into the country, travellers to move in and out of the country and even exporters who are keen to send their goods to other countries. This will eventually lead the country to fall behind in the global economy. 

Businesses will definitely start to gravitate towards nations where it is easy and there is not a lot of friction. The more friction the country creates by a lack of investment in automation, the harder it is for people to be attracted to them. Singapore has a reputation for being a very forward thinking country but every country, including Singapore, has a lot of room for improvement and for innovation. 

“Whether it is Singapore or any other APAC country that invests in automation, they will be ahead and those that don’t will remain behind,” emphasized Shaun Barry, Global Director, Fraud & Security Intelligence, SAS Institute.

Using Data Analytics To Support Government Agencies In Managing COVID-19 Challenges

Government agencies need to start by defining the risks they are searching for and use the data that they have to assess that risk. Specifically for COVID-19, when travellers are clearing immigration in an airport, immigration officers placed thermal cameras to detect high temperatures. When travellers have elevated temperatures, they will immediately be sent for additional screening and for those travellers who have normal body temperature, they will be able to pass through without any friction. 

An example would be a regional government agency that had a problem with issuing student visas. For students who were coming into that particular country to study, they knew that there may be risks such as contrabands being brought in. The students travelling into the country were abusing their student visas so SAS were able to work with this country to develop a model to risk score student visas. 

SAS found, in conjunction with the country, a ring of students who had very suspicious behaviour which is that they would come in and out of the country during a semester, 6 to 8 different times. For a student to leave that many times, it is very unusual. Fortunately, SAS was able to use analytics and identify the ring of about 20 students who had this behaviour and they were all related through data and not familial. Upon further investigation by the country, they discovered that the students were part of a drug ring and they were bringing in drugs every couple of weeks into the country and selling them under the guise of student visa. 

If the country did not have analytics, they would not have been able to connect the dots to find this type of collusive behaviour. This project took only a matter of weeks. In the modern world, CIOs need to be nimble. In the case of the previous project, SAS only took a couple of weeks to build the model but it is the CIOs place to keep executing it everyday with new student visas being issued daily as well as student travelling in and out of the country. 

The magic is to embed those models into the processing systems so that the country has IT that is analysing and helping to look for those behaviours everyday. There is another country in the ASEAN region that is modernizing their systems in passenger clearance in airports, land borders and sea ports. They intend to accelerate passport issuance as well as to quickly identify the potential risks in issuing passports and visas to individuals. They are taking all the major functions that an immigration agency performs and they are using data and analytics to help make better decisions in all aspects. 

CIOs must have trust in the data and the trust is built up from where the data came from – what the source is, and how it is matched against other data sources. In the SAS solution, the analytics that they have allows them to track data from the source (where it came from) and as long as they possess that data, they know its lineage and this generates trust. 

“It also further builds trust when you are able to link data or match data from one source to another,” comments Shaun Barry, Global Director, Fraud & Security Intelligence, SAS Institute.

Automation cannot replace human judgement. At the end of the day, human judgement is still required to make accurate decision-making based on the data that is presented to them. Customs and immigration officials need to be able make sense of the data and this is where solutions companies like SAS come into the picture. They aid in developing software or solution models that will help to bring the right data to custom officials so that they can make an even smarter decision. CIOs play a vital role as they help to aggregate these data for custom and immigration officials. This ensures that the country remains competitive and relevant.