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External Border Security – Enhancing Protection through “non-intrusive” Detection Technology

Submitted by on 26 Mar 2013 – 17:31

By Heinz Zourek, Director General of DG Taxation and Customs Union

The EU relies heavily on international trade for its economic development and is exposed to security and safety threats that come with this trade. Illicit international trade also undermines economic and social welfare in the EU. Effective risk management of the movement of goods through the international supply chain is critical for security and safety and essential to facilitating legitimate trade and protecting the financial and economic interests of the EU and its Member States.

Since ‘9/11’ and other terrorist attacks in Europe and elsewhere, security has become a top priority for European customs. The security of the EU, of the Member States and of citizens depends on each and every single point of entry of goods into the EU. If customs failed to act to tackle risks consistently along the EU’s external borders, the customs union and the EU single market would become unsustainable.

When the volume, pace and complexity of international trade is considered in the context of this wider mission, it is clear that customs administrations across the world are faced with a significant strategic challenge: how can they manage risks effectively with available resources, while combining effective controls with facilitation of legitimate trade?

The answer is: through risk management. The EU has put in place a common framework for risk management which comprises: identification and control of high-risk goods movements using common risk criteria; the contribution of Authorised Economic Operators (AEO) in a customs-trade partnership to securing and facilitating legitimate trade; and pre-arrival/pre-departure security risk analysis based on cargo information submitted electronically by traders prior to arrival or departure of goods in/from the EU.

An essential contribution – and the focus of this article – is the deployment of non-intrusive detection technology.

What is non-intrusive detection technology?

In practice, this covers a huge range of tools and instruments that limit the need for extensive inspection, unpacking and sampling activities, and the time taken for control. Examples include:

-     Screening technologies (X-ray devices  of different kinds and sizes) and other scanning tools for the detection of hidden objects (optic fibre cameras, ultra-sonic detection, gamma backscatter, etc.)

-     Rapid sample testing techniques for detecting specific kinds of molecules (as in forensic investigations)

-     Trace detection (new technology allowing customs to find the slightest trace – nanogrammes – of a suspect substance; traditional sniffer dogs for specific drugs and other controlled substances)

-     Radioactive and nuclear material detection (from “portals” to portable spectroscopic instruments)

Such “Non-intrusive” tools can obviously enhance the effectiveness and efficiency of Customs controls, while reducing clearance times. When combined with advanced cargo and passenger screening procedures they give Customs and other border authority partners a clear advantage over persons seeking to circumvent border controls and can be a cornerstone in Customs modernisation.[1]

How can it be deployed effectively?

Such technology can, in principle, help customs detect a very wide range of illicit movements of goods – radioactive and nuclear materials, counterfeit goods, explosives, drugs, weapons. It is increasingly used in the daily work of security authorities fighting terrorism and securing air passenger transport. It can also help detect illegal human trafficking (although this is not necessarily within every customs administration’s remit).

In practice, however, effective deployment requires careful strategic planning.  Experience suggests the following guidance points will be useful to decision-makers at every level:

  • Technology is not a panacea! It must be an integral part of multi-layered risk management including a combination of measures.
  • Technology deployment should be proportionate to the risks being addressed, with realistic objectives in terms of expected results. As the World Customs Organisation’s ‘SAFE’ framework of standards explains, “non-intrusive inspection equipment and radiation detection should be available and used for conducting inspections, where available and in accordance with risk assessment.
  • Different options should be considered objectively. This assessment should go beyond financial aspects and basic specifications. It should take account of functional needs, conditions of use, maintenance costs, performance statistics and quality, impact on operating procedures, training requirements for new skills, etc.
  • Operating conditions, working conditions and national health and safety regulations must be considered in planning. A decision to buy x-ray equipment, for example, should take account of radiation safety risk assessments.
  • Effective technology deployment will involve some new processes. Technology planning should include provision for their implementation and evaluation.
  • Sophisticated equipment should be handled by authorised and well-trained users. It should be properly calibrated, tested and maintained (otherwise, it may well malfunction).
  • A broad view should be taken. Consider, for example, how technology can support transnational processes; consider also whether a given piece of equipment can counter more than one threat.


Non-intrusive detection technology is a powerful tool at the disposal of authorities. But it implies substantial investments, both financial and human, and should not be regarded as a stand-alone purchase capable of detecting all threats. Only in combination with proper risk management and capable human operators does it become an effective tool fully integrated in the mission of Customs.

[1] This is not to say, of course, that they can completely replace  traditional physical examination of goods – this will continue to be important (albeit relatively time and resource intensive).