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You Could Now Be Interviewed and Stopped by a Digital Border Patrol Agent -- Seriously


“We know now how to measure these different behaviors."

(Image: University of Arizona/BORDERS)

Travelers entering the United States from Mexico through Nogales, Ariz., could face a new U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agent -- a virtual one.

(Related: 'Ava' the Holographic Avatar Greets NY Airport Passengers -- at the Cost of $180K for Six Months)

As part of the Trusted Traveler program the CBP's electronic kiosk was created by a team at the University of Arizona to make border crossings more efficient, according to Scientific American. The kiosk will be capable of interviewing travelers and analyzing their responses, alerting human CBP officers if any exchanges seem suspect:

Anomaly detection is based on vocal characteristics—changes in factors such as rate, volume, pitch and intonation—that may be related to different emotional, arousal and cognitive states. An inflection in one's voice may indicate uncertainty, or a pause might imply that an interviewee may have been devising a deceptive answer, Elkins says. The kiosk's speech recognition software monitors the content of an interviewee's answers and can flag a response indicating when, for example, a person acknowledges having a criminal record.

According to Scientific American, the virtual CBP officer was developed to handle a backlog of Trusted Traveler applicants, a program that provides expedited travel between the two countries for those who qualify.

Aaron Elkins with the University of Arizona's Management Information Systems department said the kiosk cannot say whether the person it's interviewing is lying or has malicious intent, but serves to alert human officers to investigate further for themselves. Elkins spoke more on this point to the Daily Beast in July:

“We instruct the officers that nowhere is deception ever indicated,” [said Elkins.] “But it gives them some of that feedback, things they would have observed if they had done the interview themselves.”


“We know now how to measure these different behaviors. We can get a good baseline of that person and a sense of when there’s something affecting them,” Elkins says. “(But) there are a lot of explanations for it. That’s why I don’t say ‘deception detection’ or ‘lie detection,’ because that is a very presumptuous thing to say.”

Fox News Latino reports the concerns of some privacy advocates regarding the technology:

“A lot of this is taking technology that is coming right out of research and implementing IT right on the ground,” said Lillie Coney, the associate director of The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), a Washington D.C.-based a public interest research center focusing on civil liberties and public privacy issues. “If we implement programs like this it becomes more likely that travelers from our country will be subjected to this when they travel abroad.”

The avatar kiosks have the potential to draw the same amount of criticism that the Department of Homeland Security's Future Attribute Screening Technology (FAST) program has. The FAST program measures travelers’ pulse rate, skin temperature, breathing, facial expression, body movement, pupil dilation and other physiological and behavioral factors to determine their security risk.

“Anytime you try to automate a process around security, the major question is ‘is this an appropriate use of technology?’” Coney said.

The avatar kiosk in Nogales is currently in its pilot phase, which includes more than 1,000 interviews to be conducted with travelers.

Scientific American reports the university researchers developing and testing the kiosk for CBP said they eventually would like to add passport scanning capabilities or perhaps other sensors, such as eye trackers or infrared cameras.

(H/T: Popular Science)

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