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back to article MPs: Ancient UK Border Force systems let GANGSTERS into Blighty

The UK Border Force relies on a 20 year old IT system which is on the verge of collapse to secure Britain's borders, a government report has revealed. The warning is contained in a report imaginatively called "The Border Force: securing the border" produced by the Public Accounts Committee. It found that private jets were being …

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here we go again

Prepare to spunk £20 billion on an over complex poorly designed system that will deliver on few of its promises including being on time or in budget but will go to one of the old faithful non corporate tax paying consultancies that regularly fucks stuff up without penalty.

I fail tree see when we can't even do a system for welfare or health that we have a cat in hells chance of doing border security.

Could be wrong but history paints a bleak picture.....

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Re: here we go again

But a software system, even one costing £20 billion, that can check inside lorries leaving Dover for hidden illegal immigrants has got to be a bargain. Would love to know how it is going to do it

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Re: here we go again

And private jets without inconveniencing important people too? Sounds like a bargain.

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Re: here we go again

There's no such person as someone who is "important" enough to override the laws of the land. Inconvenience hits everyone, but its a small price to pay to ensure the country is safe and secure. We shouldn't take their 'status' into account at all.

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Re: here we go again

How hard is a big database and a bit of logic? I'll do it for only £1Bn

And if it all goes wrong or never gets implimented, I've saved the Country £19Bn - awesome!

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Trollface

Re: here we go again

You did just see that other news about Facebook preparing to predict what its users will do, no? Well, since everybody is on FB these days, it will surely become as simple as "SELECT * FROM users WHERE Prediction='sneak onto a lorry leaving Dover'", right...? Easy!

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Fixed it for you

Ancient UK Border Force systems keep GANGSTERS in Blighty: MPs

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Re: Fixed it for you

Thanks for the fix, but who let them out to begin with ?

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Title is too long.

"This system was stuffed full of "low quality data" which made the database so unwieldy that staff had to block delete almost 650,000 records relating to tobacco and alcohol smuggling without first checking to see if they contained actionable data. It is estimated that at least 200 of the records contained enough intelligence to lead to seizures."

And there was no backup? Sounds like a criminal level of negligence. Destroying evidence etc etc.

I had wondered if some smart criminals were bankrolling politicians who were particularly likely to let the system trundle on without adequate investment or get/turn staff in the various agencies but cockup is still the most likely explanation.

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Re: Title is too long.

And there you have in a nutshell - the problem with collecting data on everyone and everything does not mean the ability to detect more threats, it means the inability to determine what a threat actually is.

They need to scale back this bullshit and join the schengen area at least. The world is getting increasingly smaller and many more of us have to travel to Europe to do business. To me, border agencies increasingly look like my gran struggling with her Virgin Media remote.

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Re: Title is too long.

"And there was no backup? Sounds like a criminal level of negligence. Destroying evidence etc etc."

I believe what's meant is that the database was creaking so badly they had to delete shit or it would stop.

Whilst I've seen this happen (mysql has a 4 billion entry table limit by default) the fact that block-deletions had to happen is a damning indictement of the quality of service that's been sold as well as what the database is being used for (If the Intel truely is _low quality_ then it doesn't belong on the border control system database)

As for blaming lack of lorry/aircraft inspections on the software, sorry but somone's telling porkies to cover up for lack of staff on the ground to do the job.

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Anonymous Coward

It almost appears as though Theresa May decidely neglected that part of border checks.

I wonder if she makes use of shell companies like the renowned Tony Blair or Apple?

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Stop

Overstaffed

I've just had the "pleasure" this morning of experiencing the Border Force in (in)action.

Four checkouts, only two staffed, for 600 ferry passengers. But they did have a chappie pointing out to us which of the two checkouts to use. Obviously I'm missing something when I go to the supermarket & have to choose a checkout all by myself. A complete waste of taxpayers money.

The guy isn't even there as a security backup - the five plods at the back of the hall doing nothing but chat amongst themselves were more than enough for that.

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Re: Overstaffed

Should've come in the back of a lorry.

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Re: Overstaffed

Did you have the 3 standing next to the unmanned internet-digital-e-passport cyber gates?

One telling you to go to the empty one (thanks), one telling to just wait a minute while they reboot them and one telling you to try again when it fails to read your passport.

How they mananged to do this without also having a couple of managers supervising them is a miracle

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Re: Overstaffed

What border staff?

Been over to Ireland twice, with two different cars. Only had my car and passport checked the very first time - that is to say upon leaving the UK.

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Re: Overstaffed

There's a free movement pact between the ROI and the UK. I am surprised you were stopped at all.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Common_Travel_Area

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Re: Overstaffed

Grow a beard and try travelling alone by car - works every time. Complete lack of imagination.

Phil.

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FAIL

With HollyHopDrive on this..

It'll be nothing but a money spending exercise which will fail in almost every conceivable way.. except in the realm of filling someone's pockets down the golf course.

I'm not sure I want the government shoring up our borders, when the national debt gets to the point of making the pound worthless then we might need to get out, and there's enough pointless red tape in the way already.

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Even in the criminal underworld

The rich get all the perks.

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IT is not the issue

The very best an IT system can do is to assist in making decisions about which shipments, planes etc are high risk. Any sensible strategy has to include an element of random inspection to account for the certainty that there may be things we do not know and potential smugglers may anticipate what is and isn't considered high risk. Any sensible analysis has to assume that our risk categorisation will not be perfect. A potential 200 records that may be missed out of 650,000 does not sound that terrible to me.

If we have politicians trying to imply that border security could or should be perfect that is a bigger problem, potentially leading to all sorts of broken decision making.

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We should outsource border security to the Australians.

Has anyone seen Border Security: Australia's Front Line?

Those fellas know how to do it.

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The Australians (and Kiwis) have a strong interest in making sure unwanted items don't get in and play havoc with their agricultural industries.

Everything else just rides along on the coat tails of that.

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Having emigrated out to NZ ten years ago, and made a few trips back to the UK since, I can confirm that the NZ Customs/Immigration are vastly more efficient than those of the UK. A far shorter wait here, despite there having to be more checks for biosecurity. Priority lines for people with small kids who find queueing difficult, and working ePassport gates. Not to mention that the airport terminals themselves are cleaner, less crowded, more efficient, and more spacious - and the public toilets are not vandalised.

When I occasionally return to the UK, everything there now seems so shoddy. Still, you have the BBC and cheap internet, so some benefits I suppose. I think I'll stay here, though...!

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NZ

I expect that it is just a coincidence that NZ is one of the least corrupt countries?

Link transparency.org

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why this happens ?

Illegal immigration benefits employers and landlords. And so it will continue.

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Mushroom

200 out of 650,000

Why bother....with computers.

For those 200 you could have actually written it up by hand and got it processed. what a waste.

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Re: 200 out of 650,000

Right? If their useful data is so insignificant I think there's a need to reassess what data they are collecting. It is an extremely expensive problem to be harvesting useless data. It also means that even with upgraded systems there's a really good chance that the 'bad guys' will just fall through the cracks. It's obvious they don't even know what they're looking for.

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Re: 200 out of 650,000

Do you want to be the manager saying to the press "we spent 20million quid on listing 200people - that's 100,000/person" or do you want to say "our new computer system tracks 650,000 potential smugglers, terrorists, child pornographers"

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Re: 200 out of 650,000

They were probably logging everyone on a booze 'n fags run over to Calais. Vital to the economy don't ya know!

Phil.

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Anonymous Coward

I blame the unions.

<waits for the boos to die down> and also the politicians.

Okay. Ready? Two true stories.

Heathrow Terminal 5- I landed, my plane was late and so I missed my connecting flight with the same airline. The airline knew that I was going to be late before the original flight had departed (it was a 2 hour delay on a 1.5hr flight), knew what my onward journey was going to be (with the same airline), knew exactly when I arrived... and still we got directed to the unstaffed 'customer services' desk. An hour later in that queue (a queue formed entirely from the subset of passengers on my flight who had onward journeys) I missed my next connecting flight. A while later I reached the front of the queue and had a woman type hand-type things from my ticket and passport into a computer before issuing me with a ticket for the next-but-one connecting flight as I'd likely miss the next one.

While we were waiting for someone to figure out which connecting flight was best I asked why this process hadn't been automated (i.e. flight is flagged up as being late, computer rebooks passengers on the next available flight in order of class then group-bookings then alphabetically. So you turn up, get told 'your flight's late, go over there' and with a swipe of your passport you're presented with a new ticket and a voucher for a free coffee). I was told that in order to get construction of the terminal approved they had to create x number of jobs. And this was one of them- literally a job for the sake of providing a job rather than being efficient or providing a better customer service.

So this is moral 1. Things are NEVER designed to be as efficient as possible, and it's not always the rich getting the kickbacks- sometimes it's the regular guy-on-the-street who wins at the expense of thousands of other people per day.

On another trip I was returning from Amsterdam by sea (I fix and maintain robots on boats, that boat was heading back to the city hosting my next job so I arranged to stay in a spare cabin rather than flying back). I arrived at Aberdeen harbour (yes, the one on the TV- it's actually one of the boats that's been featured on it), disembarked from this boat from Amsterdam carrying a pair of hefty offshore bags and a rucksack, jumped into the back of a waiting blacked-out BMW X5 and drove off.

Now in this case the bags contained clothes and spare parts rather than anything from Amsterdam- rather a wasted trip, really- but there was no way the port authorities knew that. They could have been filled with coke for all they knew. And no-one mentioned that I was entering the country on a different passport to the one that I'd left on.

Britain is one of the most poorly guarded countries I've been to, possessors of one of the worst sets of Border Control arrangements in history and tends to attract the most unhelpful staff outside of the TSA.

AC because I'd rather it didn't get any more difficult for me to do my job...

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JC_

Re: I blame the unions.

While we were waiting for someone to figure out which connecting flight was best I asked why this process hadn't been automated (i.e. flight is flagged up as being late, computer rebooks passengers on the next available flight in order of class then group-bookings then alphabetically. So you turn up, get told 'your flight's late, go over there' and with a swipe of your passport you're presented with a new ticket and a voucher for a free coffee).

Nice idea, but not everyone on your arriving flight is going where you are so it's not that simple. What are the loads on the next few flights - maybe they're overbooked already? Perhaps it's better to be rebooked onto a different airline and they must be consulted? Maybe the passenger won't want to go on the next flight - should the seat still be reserved? Are there medical or visa issues that give certain passengers higher priority even if they've got a cheap seat booked? Can the passenger get to the gate for the flight? Will groups accept being split up? Will they take compensation instead? Will they go down a class or pay extra for an upgrade? Who has the highest status? Can their luggage be loaded on the next flight if it's not certain they're going to board? ...

My guess is that there are so many variables that it's simply better dealt with manually. I daresay that you're a smart guy and could probably work things out for yourself in most situations, but not everyone can!

I was told that in order to get construction of the terminal approved they had to create x number of jobs.

Great! How many times have we all heard that constructing this new stadium / hosting the Olympics / building this mall will create X jobs and will totally be worth any negatives without any evidence that the benefits actually occur? If BA were held to the deal that they agreed to, then that's fine by me - they're big boys.

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Re: I blame the unions.

And there is the difference between a bad computer system and a good one; a bad one enforces arbitrary rules on the user, a good one presents the information to the user and allows them to make the decision (but summarises that info to prevent clashes and tracks the decision for oversight later).

I used to run a mainframe (40x80 terminal) airline passenger booking system for a small domestic airline (with large airplanes), which would routinely have aircraft fall over halfway through a trip. My solution was to re-present all the passengers on board from that particular leg in different orders (sequence as selected by the user), and allow the front-of-house to rebook them using their existing information onto a new flight by putting an "X" next to their name and pressing Xmit. (Families were selected as one group to ensure they did not get separated). The system resubmitted their information to the back-end booking procedures without requiring re-entry of data.

But I was master of the system, and the users defered to my judgement on design matters (not like now, where they think they know it all).

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Headmaster

Holy Crap

..and these are the GANGSTERS that have to be referred to in CAPITALS - the real hard buggers.

/I'm SCARED

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Anonymous Coward

Still using the WI?

I worked for UK Immigration over a decade ago before it was changed to Border Force. I remember Jack Straw telling us about this new system we were getting back then to sort all this stuff out. Work was outsourced to a certain AngloFrench IT company to make the new super behemoth. All this meant was that my unix terminal was replaced with a windows NT box with HyperTerminal.. To get any decent info out of it we still had to break a PL/SQL script so we could enter our own SQL, export the logs (pain when the results were more than 80 characters a line) and import to MS Access. The Minister changed to Dave Blunkett and this time a big German tech company was bought in to "sort things out with the disjointed systems and databases", after a while, they said "thanks for the money but this is too complicated". Remember some headlines talking about the project being a "Resounding success"

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Re: Still using the WI?

> Remember some headlines talking about the project being a "Resounding success"

Everytime I see that kind of statement it rings alarm bells.

I've been involved with a number of clusterfucks and that term has been the common factor in media releases associated with them. The more strident the annoucement, the higher the liklihood that it's the exact opposite.

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Why cant government ever get IT projects completed on time/within budget/that work properly?

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Why? easy peasy

The Civil Servants add features (called function creep) in order to justify their own jobs. The things they add might sometimes be what the userd have asked for but this is rare. I'm sure they hold brainstormings sessions to decised the most extreme 'functions' they can propose and more importantly get away with.

The budget are never ever increased. IT they were then they might have to stop everything, and go out to tender again (As per EU rules). Then nothing would get delivered.

But the Civil Servant would still have a job so the project would be regarded as an astounding success Yay!

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Yep, as someone currently studying for ITIL Foundation I find it quite ironic that ITIL and Prince2 are brought to us by the same government that brought us NPfIT.

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"Why cant government ever get IT projects completed on time/within budget/that work properly?"

Actually, it can. Those don't hit the headlines.

Unfortunately it requires having competent people writing solid specs and selecting companies on their merits, vs having an incompetent political appointment writig a spec whcih is broken from the outset and then basing contractor selection on handshakes on the Golf Course and then moving the goalposts to try and make it work, plus accomodate al lthe stuff which got missed the first time round.

Contractors love the latter setup. They can produce what's originall required on time/under budget - knowing that it's broken by design - and then charge through the nose for on-the-fly modifications which may or may not make it go.

From the sound of it the current system more-or-less works but needs updating. Staffing levels causing lack of inspections or empty immigration desks during peak flight hours have nothing to do with software and soemone in the media ought to be pointing this out every time it's used as an excuse

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Re: Why? easy peasy

I was a civil servant for a long time many years ago, and I've worked on Government projects that delivered on time and to budget - I've also worked on some total failures. In general the projects that worked were clearly defined and had a strong senior manager that pushed back on any requests for major spec changes, and the failures were those where that didn't happen. Interestingly I don't think it made much difference whether the work was done in-house or outsourced.

But saying its "The Civil Servants" who cause function creep is a bit disingenuous, suggesting that all civil servants are the same and all have the ability to do this. Yes you do get change requests coming in all the time, usually from the end user section who think it might be useful/fun to have some enhanced functionality they hadn't asked for previously - I found that well run change request management including cost and time impact analysis stopped the majority of those from going through.

More often the requirements were changed by either a minister wanting the enhancement, or legislative change; in one project I worked on back in the massive mainframe system days we were told of a pretty fundamental (to the function) legislative change & were told we had 3 months to implement it.

I got the impression that what happened to the UKBA was something else I've seen and heard about a few times in government programmes. Don't know about now but back in the day all government IT HAD to be financially viable i.e. must pay back in cost savings over a defined period of time, and usually the only way to cost justify the work was to reduce jobs. So the work would be planned, then all time contingency (and usually much more) squeezed out by command from above. The job cuts would then be planned according to the rather ambitious timescales. If the work was delivered late or not at all, or the very optimistic benefits were found to have been over estimated it made no difference - the jobs would still be cut. This would leave the department short of staff as they were still using the old system.

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"Click the author's name at the top of this article for a range of options"

All I can see is the option to fill in a web form?

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Anonymous Coward

border controls, last refuge of the big statists. get rid of them.

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WTF?

*not* an IT system problme, An IT system *management* problem

650 000 records of "low grade" information.

WTF put them in there?

WTF checked they weren't worthless to begin with?

And WTF was in charge of managing those processes?

What's that you say, people ?

And specifically civil service manager people.

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Make throughput mandatory, then permit checking up to that level.

The only way to get some pressure on the border focrce is to change the rules of the game. At the moment, they can inconvenience travellers as much as they like, and we can't do anything. The rules should be: you are entitled to clear the border in 15 minutes (peak 20 minutes on rare occasions). The UKBF may check in any way it wants, but the rigor of checking combined with the staffilng levels may never cause delays. Then they'll learn.

The other thing I'd do: if I were the airline, I'd hand out complaints forms to every passenger, complete with the number of the UKBA management. Lets get 100 angry passengers every hour calling up the mobile number of the inept people who run it.

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"The other thing I'd do: if I were the airline, I'd hand out complaints forms to every passenger, "

Any airline which did that would mysteriously find that their passengers take forever to get through the system and miss connecting flights.

Airlines have to pay for that kind of delay, NOT the UKBA.

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That the problem with most Government IT Politicians get in the way. The system was designed in the '70's and be glad it still works, because there is nothing else.

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WTF?

Let The Tories Hire the Usual Suspects

Just hire Centrica or PriceWaterhouse or the infamous G4S - any of them will be happy to 'resolve' the problem for tens or millions of pounds.

The G4S could actually replace the Border Plod - after all, we know how reliable and trustworthy they are.

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Paris Hilton

By gad sir!

It maintains consistency with Office of (un)Fair Trading, Financial (bitch)Services Authority, OFGEN and t'other OF*** tax payer funded, consumer lead organisations in the best of 1984 doublespeak it is absolutely essential (essential by gadsir) it continues so?

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