Manchester hub to spur e-Borders push

The high-tech Manchester centre for performing checks on passenger data replaces the JBOC, a smaller UK Border Agency at Heathrow
Written by Tom Espiner, Contributor

The government has moved its main passenger data processing centre from Heathrow to a larger hub in Manchester as part of its plans to increase the amount of passenger screening at UK airports.

The high-technology Manchester hub, called the National Border Targeting Centre (NBTC), was opened on Thursday by home secretary Alan Johnson. It will perform checks on passengers entering and leaving the UK, and will contribute to the government's aim of screening 100 percent of such travellers by 2014.

"Thanks to our hi-tech e-Borders system, the UK now has one of the strongest borders in the world," said Johnson in a Home Office statement. "It means we can count people in and out of the UK and capture known criminals, terror suspects and illegal migrants while gathering evidence against smugglers and people traffickers."

The NBTC receives passenger name record (PNR) information, advanced passenger information, and data about transportation crew. It is replacing the Joint Border Operations Centre (JBOC) at Heathrow as the operational hub of the government's e-Borders programme, which is an extension of a government traveller-data project called Semaphore.

The UK Border Agency-run NBTC will eventually check approximately 250 million passenger movements per year, according to the Home Office statement. It will also number-crunch visa application data for overseas posts by checking the applicant and sponsor details against watch-lists.

The Home Office said that various people had been apprehended through e-Borders since its launch in May 2009, including a man who was arrested entering the country with child pornography, a man wanted for murder, and a man wanted for attempted robbery.

In a separate statement, UK Border Agency said that on Saturday it had refused entry to the UK to a Lithuanian man deported in April 2002. The man was convicted in 1998 of attempting to smuggle cocaine into the UK.

Privacy campaigner Phil Booth, director of No2ID, said the identity watchdog group is concerned about the privacy implications of the mass gathering of data being carried out at the new hub.

"This moving of a mass surveillance capability from Heathrow to Manchester will mean tens of millions more people's personal information being surveilled for a decade," Booth said on Thursday. "Such a significant expansion of the database state may come as a shock to innocent UK holidaymakers and business travellers, who will be on a digital line-up at this new facility any time they choose to leave the country."

Booth added that the constant churning of the dataset provides the possibility for errors to be introduced into the data, leading to people being unfairly targeted for extra security checks while travelling, or even refused entry to a country on the grounds that their name is similar to a name on a blacklist.

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