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DHS-Funded Center Experiments With Virtual Border Officers 

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By Stew Magnuson 



A Department of Homeland Security funded program recently demonstrated the ability to replace border guards with a computer-generated substitute that can interrogate travelers while picking up the telltale signs of deceit.

The National Center for Border Security and Immigration, a consortium of 18 institutions headquartered at the University of Arizona, ran a trial late last year of Avatar, a kiosk with a computer animated border guard and outfitted with a variety of sensors that can scan passports, check fingerprints and read pupils, said Aaron Elkins, a postdoctoral researcher at the Imperial College of London’s intelligent behavior understanding group.

“A lot of this rests on the science that has been developing over the past 20 to 25 years,” he said in an interview.

The system underwent field tests at the Henri Coand International Airport in Bucharest, Romania. Frontex, the European Union border-control agency, has been working with the DHS-funded center of excellence on the project since 2010.

The objective of the trial was to allow airport travelers from around the world to interact and be interviewed in the kiosk after disembarking from their flights and going through the passport control area. It tailored its interview to their language and asked country specific visa questions while measuring behavior, physiology and verbal responses.

After the interview, E.U. border guards were provided behavioral interview summaries that told them whether additional screening might be needed.

Previous field tests in Arizona allowed Customs and Border Protection agents to pre-screen Mexican applicants in trusted traveler programs. The results then were promising, but Elkins said the next challenge was to see if it would work in a high-throughput scenario such as an airport.

Several modifications were made. Passport readers and fingerprint readers were integrated. The researchers also had to create an automatic height adjustment system so the sensors could line up exactly with the subjects. In some cases during the Arizona trial, subjects were either too short or too tall to participate, he said.

“It relies heavily on speech recognition and sensors that need perfect positioning,” Elkins said.
Travelers had the option of being interviewed in English or Romanian.

The computer during the interrogation can pick up the physical signs of deceit, and someone being uncomfortable or upset through various means such as pupil dilation. The “tells” are all based on well-validated science, he said.

“There are lots of reasons why you would be uncertain, be upset, etcetera, but it doesn’t make that determination,” he said.

If these signs are read, a real border guard takes over to do a more thorough questioning. Sometimes travelers are upset for purely innocuous reasons, he said.

Avatar is not the same as a polygraph machine, which requires physical contact, and relies on different markers to determine who is telling the truth, Elkins stressed. 

Great care was taken to choose the appearance of the virtual border guard.

“One of the issues we learned very early on in our research in doing interviewing and deception detection, was that your interviewer was supremely influential in the interaction,” he said.
Research has shown, for example, that responses change if an interrogator has an aggressive or angry appearance.

“Based on the last test, we were very encouraged on how it worked, but it will still need a lot more changes,” Elkins said.

CBP and other DHS agencies such as the Transportation Security Administration, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Secret Service are all interested in the system for a variety of scenarios where subjects must undergo security screenings, he said.

Photo Credit: The National Center for Border Security and Immigration

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