European airports are trialing AI ‘virtual border guards’

Three airports in Europe are testing AI-driven lie detectors at security checkpoints, with technology hoped to improve the speed of checks.
8 November 2018

As if airport security wasn’t tense enough. Source: Shutterstock

Airport security is enough to get the pulse of even the most seasoned travelers quickening on occasion, but how would you fare faced with an artificial intelligence-powered lie detector test on your next trip abroad?

That concept could soon become a reality. ‘Virtual border guards’ are currently undergoing trials in Europe, with the view of rolling them out to a number of airports as part of the European Union’s technology-backed crackdown on national security.

According to a report by CNN, passengers will be asked a series of questions relating to their trip, during which the artificial intelligence (AI) program will monitor their faces to assess whether they could be lying, as well as by analyzing voice intonation.

If the virtual guards become ‘skeptical’ over a flier’s answers, they will refer the suspect passengers to a human guard, while allowing those it deems to be truthful to pass on through.

“It will ask the person to confirm their name, age and date of birth, [and] it will ask them things like what the purpose of their trip is and who is funding the trip,” said Manchester Metropolitan University’s Keeley Crockett, who was involved in the project.

Called iBorderCtrl, the project is undergoing trials in airports in Hungary, Latvia, and Greece, and costs EUR4.5 million (US$5.1 million). Like much of the advanced technology introduced to airports in the last decade or so— such as electromagnetic body scanners and automatic passport gates— the aim is to both reduce congestion and manpower.

While the technology is hardly likely to be ‘welcomed’ by travelers themselves, concerns have been raised among privacy experts who have suggested the project is part of a larger trend towards systems which seek to classify people, often ineffectively.

Earlier this year, an MIT study found that facial recognition technology developed by IBM and Microsoft developed a bias towards non-white, female individuals. A report on the findings concluded that the facial recognition technology was “both biased and underfunded”. It’s worth noting, though, that facial recognition is already being used in airport security. Last year, an airport near Washington DC was the first catch an impostor with the technology, flagging man’s face for not matching his stolen passport.

While the developers behind iBorderCtrl are confident they could achieve an 85 percent success rates with the technology, adding that this will improve over time with use, it leaves some 15 percent of travelers in the distressing position of having to prove they’re not lying in the meantime.

Concerns were also raised around the project’s limited sample pool in early trials, having tested the program on just 32 people at the time of writing.

Security is not the only area in which AI technology could be deployed within airports. Research by SITA found that 79 percent of airports are using or planning to use AI for predictive analysis to improve operational efficiency by 2021, with global flight delays cost the industry US$123 billion per annum.