SSARM on new EES Technologies at Bulgaria´s Aviation Hubs

SSARM on new EES Technologies at Bulgaria´s Aviation Hubs

SSARM is one of the leading IT systems integrator in Bulgaria and was awarded a major contract to equip Bulgaria’s aviation hubs with EES-compliant border control solutions following a tender by the Bulgarian Ministry of Interior last year.

In the meantime, SSARM has fully installed a secure turnkey solution at Sofia, Varna and Burgas airports in cooperation with its German partner secunet. Bulgaria has thus become one of the first countries in Europe to comprehensively prepare its busiest air borders for the EU-wide Entry/Exit System, long before its expected launch in May 2022.

Identity Week took time out to catch up with Nikolay Dimchev – Managing Director of SSARM –   

to find out more about the project, his most interesting findings and the added value for passengers, border control and airports.

What exactly did you install at the airports in Varna, Burgas and Sofia and why?

The reason for implementing new border control systems is closely related to the EU’s decision to introduce the Entry/Exit System throughout the Schengen area in 2022. By taking facial images and fingerprints, all member states will in future know better which third-country nationals are entering the EU and ensure that individual passengers do not overstay. This enhances the security for all of us.

However, the integration of these additional process steps at primary border control threatens to cause a collapse if infrastructures remain unchanged, because clearance takes an average of 40-45 seconds longer – per passenger! Therefore, process automation at all possible steps, i.e. also at stationary border control counters, is inevitable. The Ministry of the Interior therefore decided to comprehensively modernise the border control technology and commissioned us with the implementation. We then installed – in collaboration with our project partner secunet – ABC gates, self-service kiosks as well as camera systems and fingerprint readers for the stationary counters at the three aviation hubs in Bulgaria. The technologies fulfil very different functions and are sometimes intended for different passenger groups – but all technologies together will noticeably speed up the border control process and greatly reduce the workload of the responsible officers. 

Why did you decide to bring secunet on board as a partner for the EES implementation? SSARM is a well-positioned IT system integrator itself.

We have been working with secunet in the area of high-security technologies for a long time and they have consistently proven to us in previous projects that the quality of their products is not only right, but comprehensively meets the requirements of our customers. The experts at secunet simply understood the processes and requirements on the customer side well and implemented them respectively in their products. That’s why we also contacted secunet for the EES project. Although we are in an excellent position ourselves as system integrator who is very familiar with the Bulgarian market, we don’t have our own product portfolio in this area.

The EES solutions from secunet then also convinced us: they deliver EES-compliant biometric solutions, that assure the best possible quality of the biometric capture and are designed to be highly resistant to circumvention and forgery. This is extremely important, especially for unattended systems where the officer is not standing right next to them monitoring each passenger. And last but not least, all products have a very eye-catching, modern design – not to be underestimated considering today’s innovative airport architectures. 

The modernisation of the border control infrastructure was certainly a major investment. What advantages does it bring for passengers, airports and border control?

The benefits are quickly summed up: passengers – wherever they come from – now have access to automation technologies at the Bulgarian airports in Sofia, Varna and Burgas. If you like, they have at least a part of their border crossing in their own hands. Thanks to intuitive user guidance and innovative security mechanisms, passengers can be sure that their data will be captured quickly and is processed securely and in accordance with data protection regulations. The high-quality biometric acquisition is of course especially important for the border police. The officers are moreover ideally supported by the technologies and not put under additional strain. And the airports benefit from the fact that despite more extensive border control processes, which actually take more time, there are no significantly longer queues and missed connecting flights. In short: With automation and process optimisation, we have ensured that time limits and the increasing number of passengers under “EES operations” can also be thoroughly and securely absorbed.

What are your most important insights from this EES project?

Actually, we were confronted with the same challenges in the EES project as in almost every IT project: When things become more concrete than a description on paper, it is not uncommon that new or changed requirements arise from the customer side that have to be implemented in the running project at short notice. This is completely normal and we can deal with it very well.

In the case of the EES installations, for example, we installed the most modern, secure products and had to realise that this alone was not enough. Border control projects are about more than “just” installing technologies. The products should optimise passenger processes and fit perfectly into the respective environment and infrastructure, which is different at every airport and at every land border. This was an important and new insight for us. In this specific case, we also have integrated functional enhancements into the current project that were not planned beforehand. The installation of glass walls between stationary and automated border control or the construction of racks for the fingerprint scanners, which otherwise would not be perfectly positioned for the passengers, are small examples. Fortunately, together with secunet, we were able to offer all new customer requirements quickly and as needed, integrated them into the project implementation and still delivered on time.

Another important insight yet certainly not new is: You have to react flexibly right up to the end and remain focused on details if you want installations that fit perfectly and are also visually attractive.

Are there further points you would like to particularly highlight? 

The EES installation was our first border control project, our premiere, so to speak. We are proud and relieved that we fulfilled the task to the fullest satisfaction of the Bulgarian Ministry of the Interior. Having secunet’s people on board, who are very experienced, was of course an enormous advantage for us. In times of this pandemic, we learned a lot together and supported each other in the best possible way, even if we were forced to do so “remotely” for most of the project. Through this perfect collaboration, we succeeded in implementing the installations on time and achieving the customer’s declared goal: Bulgaria is one of the first countries in the EU to be equipped with an EES-compliant overall solution at the three aviation hubs, long before the official launch of the Entry/Exit System. We are proud of this.

secunet and SSARM futureproof Bulgaria’s border controls

secunet and SSARM futureproof Bulgaria’s border controls

In cooperation with the general contractor SSARM, the cybersecurity company secunet has implemented a secure turnkey solution for EES-compliant border controls at Sofia, Varna and Burgas airports. As one of the first EU countries, Bulgaria has thus prepared its air borders with secunet border gears for the EU-wide Entry/Exit System EES and is ready for operation long before its launch in May 2022. The future required processes which considerably increase the workload for the authorities and significantly prolong waiting times for passengers at border control, will be simplified and accelerated with the user-friendly, automated systems for biometric data capture.

While international air traffic is only slowly returning to normal, preparations for future regular operations are already in progress at the Bulgarian border authorities. With the recently installed EES-compliant border control systems, the busiest airports – Sofia, Varna and Burgas – are already well prepared for the future border control processes of the Entry/Exit System. Under the Smart Borders Initiative, third-country nationals will have to register with a facial image and four fingerprints at land, sea and air borders from May 2022.

SSARM, which is specialized in the delivery and integration of IT applications, was awarded the contract last year – following a call for tenders from the Bulgarian Ministry of the Interior – and relied on solutions from secunet for the implementation. Thanks to the efficient cooperation and dedicated commitment of the local partner, the new border control systems were installed on schedule despite the challenges arising from the COVID-19 pandemic. At the airports in Sofia, Varna and Burgas, a total of 20 secunet easygates with facial and fingerprint verification are now in use. EU passengers can thus cross the borders automatically and more quickly. Eight secunet easykiosk systems enable travellers from third countries to pre-enrol their biometric data independently. At the stationary border control desks, 66 secunet easytowers and fingerprint scanners also support the biometric capture of facial images and fingerprints. Finally, the technical components were adapted to the airport-specific environment as well as individual customer requirements.

Security plays a key role in automated systems, for example, to protect against circumvention attempts. Border control officers can monitor data entries at the easykiosk via cameras to ensure that the biometric data indeed belongs to the traveller. Additional sensors protect against possible attacks with forged photos and fingerprints using Presentation Attack Detection (PAD).

“The Bulgarian Ministry of the Interior has implemented a secure and efficient border control strategy at Sofia, Varna and Burgas airports with the turnkey solution from the secunet border gears product portfolio, which represents an important step towards EES compliance and thus into the future,” concludes Marco Breitenstein, Head of Division Homeland Security at secunet.

Nikolay Paunov, General Manager SSARM, explains further: “The implementation of the EES-Ready solution at Sofia, Varna and Burgas airports is the second project that SSARM is carrying out for the Bulgarian Ministry of the Interior in cooperation with secunet. A major challenge was the realization during the COVID pandemic. SSARM, together with the Ministry of Interior, the Border Police and secunet, managed to ensure a smooth delivery, installation and integration process despite the circumstances. The solution relies on current biometric technologies and provides secure automated border control that is compliant according to European EES regulations. Above all, travelers will benefit: the border control process will be significantly accelerated and the travel experience for passengers at airports will be improved remarkably.”