• United States



Virtual avatar CBP agent Elvis screens travelers for lies at the border

Aug 22, 20125 mins
Data and Information SecurityMicrosoftSecurity

The Trusted Traveler program has a huge backlog of people awaiting face-to-face interviews with U.S. Customs and Border agents, so Elvis will be screening travelers for potentially suspicious behavior. He's an Automated Virtual Agent for Truth Assessments in Real-Time (AVATAR) kiosk being used at the Nogales, Arizona, Port of Entry to detect deception and to predict threats.

Even though it’s been 35 years, some folks have a specific King of Rock-n-Roll in mind when they hear the name “Elvis.” However you might have a case of the Jailhouse Rock blues if the new Elvis catches you in a lie. That’s because this Elvis is AI; an android behind a touchscreen who questions people on behalf of U.S. Customs and Border (CBP) Protection to analyze potentially suspicious behavior and to predict threats. He’s an Automated Virtual Agent for Truth Assessments in Real-Time (AVATAR) kiosk.

Elvis is just one of the prototypes created by the University of Arizona in a group effort with CBP and Homeland Security. Unlike the Dynamic Embodied Agent for Persuasion (DEAP) that can sucessfully influence people, the AVATAR kiosk is “a non-invasive automated interviewing system” meant to detect deception. The UA team calls the AVATAR kiosk Elvis, or sometimes Pat, “but when he’s in the field he’s just the AVATAR agent.”

Tucson News reported that there are not enough CBP agents to handle all of the Trusted Traveler Program applications that require face-to-face interviews. So at the Nogales, Arizona, Port of Entry, potential Trusted Travelers will use Elvis for face-to-avatar interviews. Dr. Aaron Elkins, UA researcher said the questions will be similar to “What is your name? Do you use any other names? Do you use drugs? Have you been convicted of any crimes?”

It works by using sensors “to screen passengers for unusual physiological responses to questioning — which can indicate a subject is lying,” according to CNN. UA project team member Doug Derrick explained, “What we’re looking for is changes in human physiology. We’ve had great success in reliably detecting these anomalies — things that people can’t really detect.” He added that travelers just talk to Elvis, which “looks like an ATM on steroids,” like you would any other person.

Travelers being screened simply answer “yes” or “no” to the questions as the computer judges the human for truthfulness. It’s not what you answer, but how you answer. Are you upset or fidgeting? CNN reported that it “uses three sensors to assess physiological responses: a microphone, which monitors vocal quality, pitch and frequency; an infrared camera, which looks at pupil dilation and where the eyes focus; and a high-definition camera recording facial expressions.”

UA describes AVATAR kiosk as:

an automated interviewing platform with an embedded artificial agent that is designed to flag suspicious behavior at a port-of-entry that should be investigated more closely by a trained officer. This primary screening technology is designed for use at ports-of-entry, including border crossings and airports. The kiosk also has many other security application such as visa processing and personnel screening.

While real CBP agents, or people in general, are only accurate in detecting lies about 54% of the time, the AVATAR kiosk ranked as high as 90%. FOX was given a “sneak peek” of the virtual agent and said it can “read your body language, analyze your behavior, your emotions, predict your intent.” Other questions travelers might be asked include: “Are you applying to program at request of another person? Do you live at the address you listed at your application? Did you accurately list all your employers for the past five years? Have you ever carried a package across border without knowing what was inside of the package?”

While Elvis is considered a research tool right now, we may be but a few years way from seeing AVATAR kiosks at every port of entry for the U.S. Dr. Elkins added, “I’m sick to death of the mouse and keyboard. I would love for us to talk to our computers in a natural way — and have them understand and respond in a way that I would expect a person to.”

“In the end, the researchers envision AVATAR not as a Big Brother that decides who stays and who goes, but as a streamlined way to save time and effective tool for human agents.” The virtual agent conducts interviews in English and Spanish and Elkins believes it is “objective, not Orwellian, and will help remove human error.” Unlike recent reports of alleged racial profiling by TSA agents at the Boston airport, Elvis has no discrimination about race or ethnicity. There’s no need to get all shook up, when hounded by the newest Elvis. CBP spokesman Victor Brabble told the Arizona Daily Star that the worst case scenario means you get “flagged” and will need to “go through a more careful interview process” with a real, not virtual, CBP agent.

If you hated all the Elvis Presley song references, sorry, blame my parents for subjecting me to countless hours of hearing the King of Rock. 😉

Images courtesy of BORDERS/University of Arizona

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ms smith

Ms. Smith (not her real name) is a freelance writer and programmer with a special and somewhat personal interest in IT privacy and security issues. She focuses on the unique challenges of maintaining privacy and security, both for individuals and enterprises. She has worked as a journalist and has also penned many technical papers and guides covering various technologies. Smith is herself a self-described privacy and security freak.