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Alan Bersin: Homeland Security in a context of global trade

By Brierley Penn

“Information is power,” said Alan Bersin, US Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security for International Affairs and Chief Diplomatic Officer in his address to the US-NZ Partnership Forum this morning. But the traditional messages that we have taken from this, that power derives from hiding and preserving information, must change in the context of international security.

In a global and digital world facing increasing threats from transnational criminals, information sharing will be key to combating these dangers. “He who hoards information today will be isolated and ignored,” Bersin claims.

His address focused primarily on the interplay between trade and security, in the context of a country which clears some 1 million people and 270,000 vehicles to cross its borders each day. The increasingly large flows of goods and people across US borders has changed the way that the country has viewed Homeland Security, a government department which now boasts some 240,000 employees. Engaging with foreign allies and friends has become an increasingly important focus for security measures.

“Security trumps trade. But if it trumps properly, it expedites trade and expedites travel.”

The difficulty lies in how to find the threats amongst the massive flow of legitimate trade, the proverbial needle in the haystack of international trade and travel. Bersin suggests that “making the haystack smaller” will be key to addressing this challenge.

Governments need to learn as much as possible about the cargo and passengers, and expedite those that do not present a high risk. This

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allows the concentration of resources on that section of the cargo flow that is deemed to be dangerous.

“That is the way in which we now operate trade in the US,” says Bersin. “The notion of security and trade facilitation as being the same is true. Spending 90% of your time on the 10% of the cargo about which you do have assurance that it is low risk enhances your security profile.”

This strategy requires Customs Officials working offshore with foreign counterparts, to facilitate the information sharing that will allow identification of these threats. NZ and the US have started a groundbreaking process, which Berkin predicts will become the norm in international security and trade over the next ten to fifteen years.

Initiated in response to the massive inflow of international travelers for the 2011 Rugby World Cup, the system established between the two nations allows Customs Officials to cross-check incoming passengers against databases of the other nation, to identify potential threats.

While privacy concerns no doubt arise in this regard, Bersin was confident that the system worked for the overall benefit of global security. “We care deeply about privacy, but we think that when you get into a global transit system or global supply system that you have given consent to information being shared.”

Identification is triggered only when databases identify a threat, and comprehensive protocols address the privacy concerns around this. “For the first time we actually have a system in which those manifests were compared to databases, the only information that was preserved or shared was where there was a match.”

The next step is to work with regular travelers between the two nations, to more rapidly move low risk passengers through airports. The US has implemented such a system for NZ travelers, and a reciprocal arrangement with Smart Gates in New Zealand is currently under discussion.


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