Thursday 24 May 2018

Borders left exposed as screening system crashed twice in 48 hours

Ben Riley-Smith

British borders were left exposed last year after a Home Office computer system which screens passengers crashed twice in 48 hours.

The eBorders system, which was put in place after the 9/11 terror attacks to protect the country from jihadists, ground to a halt in June last year.

The incident, which the Daily Telegraph is reporting on, was deemed so serious that Theresa May, the Home Secretary, was alerted by officials close to midnight.

The Home Office refused to reveal how often the system has crashed or whether there have been any outages since the incident.

Technicians worked through the night to fix the system amid fears from border officials that hundreds of extremists, convicts and illegal immigrants were arriving in the UK undetected.

The disclosure that a vital part of Britain’s border security stopped working during a time of “severe” threat from terrorism will raise serious questions about whether it is fit for purpose. 

Mrs May is likely to come under pressure to explain why the public were kept in the dark despite tens of thousands of people likely to be traveling into the UK at the time.

Flights were not grounded despite the system being down and border officials unable to check in advance passenger details against terrorism watch lists.

Sources familiar with the situation told the newspaper that they would normally expect to see the names of hundreds of potential suspect passengers being 'flagged' each day.

During the outages just one individual was 'flagged' suggesting others could have gone under the radar.

A Home Office spokesman said that all passengers would still have had to cross passport control after arriving in the UK.

Officials at the border have access to lists of “dangerous” people, which the Home Office insists would have been cross-checked to ensure there was no breach.

However the warnings index – which dates back to 1995 – was deemed inadequate on its own after the 9/11 attacks and was recently found to be breaking down twice a week.

But terrorists or criminals could still have boarded aircraft without being detected by British security services.

At the heart of Britain’s ability to stop dangerous people entering the country is Semaphore, a system which checks passenger data against watch lists of suspect individuals.

Every day Semaphore scans information on passengers traveling to and from Britain on planes, trains and ferries against lists of those flagged up by government agencies.

The system - unlike its predecessor - helps alert the border agencies to suspect passengers bound for the UK before they board planes.

The system appeared to stabilise before another malfunction saw hundreds of thousands of passenger details flood the system and trigger another outage on Monday night. Mrs May was notified again.

Officers at the NBTC warned that instead of seeing hundreds of matches they had received just one – meaning potential criminals and jihadists heading to Britain were not being flagged up.

Specialists worked through the night again trying to locate the source of the problem before finally stabilising the system on Wednesday.

They occurred just months after the Charlie Hebdo shooting that saw jihadists kill 11 people in Paris and while Britain’s threat level was set at “severe”, meaning a terrorist attack is “highly likely”.

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