Saudi Arabia security challenges
How do you keep tabs on who's coming in and out of your country, when it plays host to two of the biggest annual pilgrimages on the planet?
In a nutshell, that's one of the most significant security challenges faced by the authorities in Saudi Arabia.
Arrivals in Djeddah at King Abdulaziz International Airport.
The airport implementing biometric borders is known for its Hajj terminal, which is built for Islamic pilgrims going to Mecca. It can handle 80,000 passengers at the same time and accommodate more aircraft than any other airport in the world.
What's more, as far as homeland security is concerned, it's far from the whole story.
As well as handling huge influxes of visitors from across the world, the Kingdom is home to a remarkably diverse resident population too.
Moreover, it finds itself at the heart of a troubled region, in uncertain times. Saudi Arabia is bordered by Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, the UAE, and Yemen.
The threats to the country's safety and well-being are not only ever-present but also growing in scale and sophistication.
So what's the answer?
Biometrics to determine who's crossing the border
Well, at least part of Saudi Arabia's response is coming in the form of biometrics.
Over the last few years, the government has invested in a raft of new systems that enable robust identification, and verification based on the unique characteristics that define us all.
As a result, they are now in a position to determine – beyond any reasonable doubt – precisely who is crossing the country's borders.
Furthermore, these biometric-based solutions, which include an Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS) supplied by Thales, are also providing the foundations for applications, and use cases extending far beyond border management.
Thales has also been contributing to the national ID card program since 2009.
The Saudi eID card is biometric and critical for efficient physical and electronic identity verification.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia home of an evolving population
To start with, let's review a few relevant facts and figures.
Founded in the early 1930s, Saudi Arabia covers a vast geographical area – it's more than twice the size of France and Germany combined with a population over the 34 million mark in 2019.
The proportion of that figure made up by foreign nationals is in the region of 8 – 10 million.
Mecca and Medina are the two holiest sites in Islam.
In Saudi Arabia, you'll also find the two holiest sites in Islam, namely Al-Masjid al-Haram in Mecca, and Al-Masjid an-Nabawi in Medina. As a result, the country welcomes a vast number of pilgrims every year, most notably for Hajj and Umrah.
- Hajj represents one of the Five Pillars of Islam. It attracts over a million overseas visitors per annum to Mecca. Furthermore, the vast majority arrive in the space of just a few short days.
- Umrah, meanwhile, runs throughout the year and proves another powerful draw for Muslims the world over. 7,58m Umrah visas were issued in 2019 alone.
In an era of globalisation, meeting these twin goals is always going to prove a challenge.
But the unique characteristics of Saudi Arabia make it an even tougher task.
So that's where biometrics come in.
A nation-wide biometric identification initiative
Some years ago, the Saudi government recognised the pressing need to put in place measures that would enable swift and irrefutable proof of identity. Not just for the resident population, but also the untold millions that visit the country.
It's a bold ambition. But how precisely have biometrics been used to help realise it?
- To start with, the Saudi authorities have created a biometric civil registry for both citizens and expatriates.
Fingerprints are now being captured from everyone aged 15 or over, and the information is stored in the government's Automated Central System (ACS). Those who fail to register could find themselves unable to access online government services, or renew their iqama residence permits, for example.
For the Saudi authorities, enrollment of the adult population was only the starting point. Attention quickly turned to the large numbers of visitors – including pilgrims – that head for the country from virtually every corner of the globe. Once again, the government looked to biometrics for the answer.
- Specifically, that meant a commitment to capturing biometric data – in the form of a fingerprint - from everyone entering or leaving the country.
Furthermore, the Saudi authorities have recently started to insist that all pilgrims for the Hajj and Umrah, wherever they are in the world, have their fingerprint scanned before applying for a visa.
In terms of fundamental principles, it has many similarities with the IDENT (formerly known as US Visit) which has now captured biometric data from an impressive 200 million visitors. It's also close to what the European Union is planning to do with biometric border screening with its biometric Entry-Exit system, also known as Smart Borders.
So far, so good
But how does all this help strengthen safety and security?
Entry-Exit system put in place.
That's where Thales Cogent AFIS comes in.
- When a person entering Saudi Arabia has their fingerprint scanned, Thales Cogent AFIS is responsible for comparing it against existing database records, and then either enrolling it as a new one or consolidating it against information already held on file.
- When they leave, another fingerprint scan is taken.
All being well that one should of course, already have matching data on file.
As a result, Saudi authorities can quickly identify any visitors that do not return to their home countries in a timely fashion. Furthermore, with their biometrics on file, they also have a powerful means of tracking down any such over-stayers.
But there's even more to the Saudi solution than this.
In terms of keeping out any unwanted guests, the Thales Cogent AFIS also enables real-time comparison of visitor biometrics with any number of different criminal databases or watch lists containing the fingerprints of individuals who might not be welcome in the country.
The biometric border at peak levels
Crucially, the Thales Cogent AFIS solution is more than capable of handling the large volume of travellers that characterise the Saudi border management application.
During Hajj, for example, the numbers crossing daily will typically reach around 120,000.
Even at these peak levels, the matching process is performed not just in a matter of seconds, but with the highest possible standards of accuracy. Officials can, therefore, respond quickly to any possible threat to homeland security, while allowing legitimate visitors to move through border control as smoothly as possible.
Consequently, the traveller experience is optimised.
• Data collected at all border points
• 3 synchronised ABIS (Automated Biometric Identification System) back end sites
• Up to 120,000 transactions per day
• 1/to-many matching of 10 fingerprints in less than 10 seconds
And the initiative does not stop there.
Biometric identification to be deployed across many environments
The Thales Cogent AFIS went live for use at border crossings in 2016. And the story has continued.
The Saudi government's plans for biometric identification extends much further, and the Thales Cogent AFIS has all the flexibility and adaptability necessary to meet the requirements of a wide array of other use cases.
As such, it has since been deployed across a variety of:
- and criminal environments.
Thales Cogent AFIS will also be used for criminal identification (matching a latent image from a crime scene)
To give just one example, these include supporting robust KYC (Know Your Customer) procedures for new mobile phone biometric registrations.
This decision is resulting from new legislation drafted by the country's Communications and Information Technology Commission, and all Mobile Network Operators in the Kingdom must now collect the fingerprint biometrics of new subscribers.
Fingerprints are shared with the National Information Centre to verify the identity of buyers.
The Saudi government certainly faces a particularly challenging environment. But the core issues are common to most countries. Around the world, an ever-growing number of public and private sector organisations are now faced with the pressing need to identify individual customers and end-users reliably – as well as weeding out any potential threats to security and safety.
Of course, in pursuit of these goals, more and more are now recognising that biometrics can provide the perfect combination of accuracy, speed, and convenience.
And it's easy to see why.
Biometrics requires skills, experience, and technologies.
Taking advantage of our characteristics, such as a fingerprint, face or iris, clearly offers enormous potential to deliver consistent, comprehensive and frictionless identity verification.
However, the successful deployment of a biometric-based solution requires a fully integrated mix of skills, experience, and proven technologies.
For example, algorithm design will play a key role in determining the accuracy and reliability with which biometrics captured on a scanner are compared with information held on databases that can run into millions of individual records.
Furthermore, robust measures must be put in place to protect the integrity, and privacy of all this highly sensitive information as encryption and tokenisation recently implemented with Thales in the largest biometric database in the world in India for the Adhaar card scheme.
And so for the good news.
Help is at hand. At Thales, we have already been responsible for more than 200 biometric deployments in 80 countries, not to mention an equally strong track record in fields such as border and visa management and secure travel document design and issuance.
What's more, we're happy to share our knowledge and understanding of these critical fields with stakeholders in both the public and private sectors - right around the world.