Image showing immigration counters at Auckland Airport

How New Zealand protects its borders without security theatre

Note from the author: Normally the following would be one of my German language articles belonging to the “Datenschutz” (privacy) series, however it gives a contrary view for those people who argue the vast, ill-founded collection of all travellers’ personal information, including biometrics, makes a country safer – and presents NZ as good example how to do it differently and achieve the same, if not even better results.

While living in a foreign country long term, it always pays to keep up to date with immigration legislation and practices. This may be easy or rather difficult, depending on how developed a country’s immigration department, their systems and their resources are. I’m in luck, since Immigration New Zealand (INZ) maintains an excellent website with a dedicated news section, so every expat/migrant can immediately check what’s going on.

Along this, they also publish media reports related to immigration matters – and this where I stumbled upon “Year at the Border”, an apparently annually published paper talking about immigration statistics and the work of INZ throughout the year. I did take some time to read most of it and as it turns out, it contains very interesting information about how the country handles incoming passengers.

Read on if you want to find out how NZ manages to keep their borders safe without – this is the point I want to make – the security theatre that one has to endure in the US, Canada, Australia, other developed nations and, unfortunately in the near future, Europe.

While travelling the world is easier than it ever was in history, some countries’ governments want to make sure the entering their country is a hassle, a major violation of one’s privacy or both. The pioneers of all this are, not surprisingly, the United States. After the tragic events of 9/11, the US was the first country to introduce fingerprinting for foreign visitors (archive link to preserve this for the future) excluding Canadians in 2004. It didn’t take long for other countries to implement the same requirement for visitors, notably many nations in East and South East Asia; as of June 2017, the number of countries practising this stands somewhere between 25 and 30 (sadly, it’s difficult to find reliable information on this without actually travelling to these countries).

Unlike the places above, NZ’s big neighbour Australia “only” requires fingerprints from nationals of countries not eligible for the electronic ETA or eVisitor schemes – which admittedly applies to most of the world’s population. New Zealand on the other hand does not require fingerprints from anyone.

Well, at least that’s what I thought until I read Year at the Border. In short, INZ has introduced a biometric collection and analysis system, which is at least linked to the databases of the US, Australia and Canada, in mid-2016. While this is generally bad news for any person who values his/her privacy, let’s see how New Zealand’s authorities use this technology:

“A woman travelling on a Mexican passport flew into Auckland via Santiago, Chile. IBO [Immigration NZ Border Operations] selected her for further investigation because of travel irregularities.”

Let’s digest what happened here exactly. They “selected her for further investigation because of travel irregularities.” While it is debatable what constitutes “travel irregularities”, this is a prime example of how well immigration/law enforcement authorities can work with the right premise: Instead of disadvantaging everybody and collecting sensitive data that can be abused, lost or stolen, they chose to collect biometrics from a person that was specifically selected, based on a genuine assumption. “This person has a strange travel pattern” is a much better start than “Everybody could be a terrorist!!!”, all concerns about the definition aside.

INZ then went on to compare the biometrics taken with the database of the US, Canada and Australia, and the result was this:

“Fingerprint results revealed that the woman was known by different names, nationalities and date(s) of birth in Australia, Canada and the USA including 22 different identities in Canada. Information from Canada and the USA revealed that she had multiple convictions, including for shoplifting and attempted robbery and for being a member of a multi-national criminal organisation.”

Border protected, bad guy caught. Without violating other people’s rights or taking mug shots. New Zealand gives the evidence that it can work without security theatre.

If they (and most other countries) would now move on to vein matching instead of fingerprinting, people could be identified without opening the possibility of misuse of the biometric data as it’s the case for fingerprints (you don’t leave vein marks behind), and without compromising the work of law enforcement/immigration authorities. And I’m sure in this day and age, it would be possible to further develop this technology to match the current accuracy of fingerprinting.

Let’s move on to another part of travelling to Canada, Australia or the US and being from neither of these countries or New Zealand: If you’re eligible for a “visa waiver”, well, you still need to get a visa, for purposes of knowing who’s coming to the country. Sure, everybody denies calling ESTA, ETA and eVisitor a “visa”, but that’s what it is – a pre-travel authorisation to travel to a country’s border, nothing else. The only difference to a traditional visa is that you don’t get a label in your passport. Countries like India, Myanmar or Kenya are much more honest about this and call it correctly “eVisa”. Apart from eligible Europeans going to Australia, these visas are not even free, and in the case of the US $10 out of the $14 payable are used to promote travel to America.

Back to New Zealand: Coming here, no pre-authorisation is needed for most visitors from developed countries and even a number of less developed countries that would need a visa when going to Europe, the US or Australia, for example. Tourists eligible for a visitor visa waiver in NZ may have to prove their genuine intention to visit the country as a tourist when getting processed at immigration, but this is reasonable and happens almost everywhere in the world. Now I can hear people sarcastically commenting: “At least we know who’s coming to our country and can act immediately if a person with bad intentions does manage to arrive here.”

Surprise: New Zealand does the very same thingwithout long forms to fill out, without claiming to offer a visa waiver when in fact a visa is needed, and without asking people for additional money upfront to go on holiday – a holiday that, at this stage, is often already planned and will in most cases bring money to the local economy anyway.

“The Advance Passenger Processing (APP) system is an interactive system through which airlines provide biographical data on passengers and crew prior to travel to New Zealand. The system enables INZ to know who is coming to New Zealand before boarding and interactively check New Zealand-bound travellers against passport, visa and alert databases prior to embarkation. INZ can then issue directives back to the airlines in real time as to whether to board the passengers or not. Failure to supply correct APP data or ignoring a boarding directive are offences.”

In the introduction, the paper further states:

“We have upgraded our Advance Passenger Processing (APP) systems to include automated checks against the Interpol Stolen and Lost Travel Document database, which ensures cases of identity fraud are managed before a passenger boards a flight to New Zealand.”

One has to keep in mind that while being a wealthy, developed nation, New Zealand is only small in comparison to the other major English-speaking countries mentioned above – they would all have the means to implement a system resembling the one NZ is using. Visitor numbers, if anybody thinks that, make no difference: The bigger a country, the more immigration staff and border crossing points exist, not speaking of the importance that at least the US and Australia threat their borders with.

These two examples of how INZ manages foreigners coming to NZ form part of the country’s four tier system:

  1. Authority to Travel
  2. Pre-departure Assessment
  3. On-arrival Assessment
  4. Post-arrival Activity

At last, and I find this worth mentioning, the introductory paragraph for this tier system starts with the following sentence:

“INZ works hard to be welcoming and to facilitate genuine visitors, workers and students while identifying and managing people who pose unacceptable immigration risks.”

This, dear readers, is the way it should be. Of course one cannot demand this from every country, but one should be able to expect this from every country that is genuinely interested in getting tourists/travellers to visit them. NZ is the proof that it can be done, and that INZ takes its job seriously. And the best of all: You wouldn’t know of any of these procedures unless you read it here, and can travel to NZ on your next holiday pretty much carefree.

For those who are curious, more details are available by reading the paper in full. There’s other interesting stuff such as real life case studies where people have been refused admission and why, among them a Mexican who stated he came to visit NZ to see “kangaroos and boomerangs”. If you travel somewhere and you’re up for mischief, at least be smart about it, eh?

Naturally, it’s not all sunshine and NZ is one culprit for other related privacy violations, such as facial recognition by cameras at Auckland Airport (and likely the other international airports), as well as the country being part of the Five Eyes. However, INZ’s way of dealing with foreigners visiting Aotearoa is way ahead of other developed countries, so for the second time on this blog, I can only close with: Good on ya, New Zealand!

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