Europe's Latest Border Security Efforts Combines Junk Science With Lie Detectors

from the strangely-expensive-for-such-a-shit-solution dept

There’s border garbage going on in Europe as well. A report by The Intercept shows border officials have cobbled together junk science, tech, and a spin on a notoriously-sketchy piece of equipment into its newest border security offering.

It’s called Silent Talker. It subjects travelers to lie detector tests predicated on the fiction that people call tell other people are lying just by looking at them. It’s the same pseudo-science that powers the TSA’s useless “Behavioral Detection” program. Only this is possibly worse because it considers itself to be a lie detector and it’s been known for years lie detectors can’t reliably detect lies.

It works like this: travelers upload their passports to the border agency’s website and are put face-to-“face” with a blue uniformed avatar. The software takes control of the device’s camera to scan the traveler’s face and eye movements for “signs of lying.”

Here’s the thing: it doesn’t even work when it’s humans doing the face-to-face work. A report on the TSA’s Behavioral Detection program found it to be completely lacking in scientific background. The justification for the program was predicated on hearsay, conjecture, and anecdotal evidence. The TSA claimed it was hard science, but actual scientists have said there’s no evidence backing the claim that anyone can suss out lies just by looking at people’s faces.

These research findings do not imply that people move their faces randomly or that the configurations in Figure 4 have no psychological meaning. Instead, they reveal that the facial configurations in question are not “fingerprints” or diagnostic displays that reliably and specifically signal particular emotional states regardless of context, person, and culture. It is not possible to confidently infer happiness from a smile, anger from a scowl, or sadness from a frown, as much of current technology tries to do when applying what are mistakenly believed to be the scientific facts.

Instead, the available evidence from different populations and research domains—infants and children, adults living in industrialized countries and in remote cultures, and even individuals who are congenitally blind—overwhelmingly points to a different conclusion: When facial movements do express emotional states, they are considerably more variable and dependent on context than the common view allows.


Efforts to simply “read out” people’s internal states from an analysis of their facial movements alone, without considering various aspects of context, are at best incomplete and at worst entirely lack validity, no matter how sophisticated the computational algorithms.

Given this scientific background, it’s no surprise Europe’s “Silent Talker” lie detector/behavioral detection program can’t actually detect lies or liars.

A person judged to have tried to deceive the system is categorized as “high risk” or “medium risk,” dependent on the number of questions they are found to have falsely answered. Our reporter — the first journalist to test the system before crossing the Serbian-Hungarian border earlier this year — provided honest responses to all questions but was deemed to be a liar by the machine, with four false answers out of 16 and a score of 48. The Hungarian policeman who assessed our reporter’s lie detector results said the system suggested that she should be subject to further checks, though these were not carried out.

The rush to allow tech to do the work of people — as well as the firm belief that if something is expensive it must be good — has led to the funneling of time and money into this highly-questionable border security effort.

IBorderCtrl’s lie detection system was developed in England by researchers at Manchester Metropolitan University, who say that the technology can pick up on “micro gestures” a person makes while answering questions on their computer, analyzing their facial expressions, gaze, and posture.

An EU research program has pumped some 4.5 million euros into the project, which is being managed by a consortium of 13 partners, including Greece’s Center for Security Studies, Germany’s Leibniz University Hannover, and technology and security companies like Hungary’s BioSec, Spain’s Everis, and Poland’s JAS.

There’s more money on the way and companies will be pushing dubious “solutions” to governments with security money to burn. European nations have been hit with a series of terrorist attacks, which means the wind is now catching most of these governments’ caution and junk science purveyors are converting fervent beliefs into long-term government contracts. The European Commission has budgeted nearly 35 billion euros over the next eight years for border control efforts. Being first is better than being correct, and governments all over the world have shown a willingness to allow unproven tech to use their citizens for on-the-job training.

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Comments on “Europe's Latest Border Security Efforts Combines Junk Science With Lie Detectors”

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Pete Austin says:

If you've got nothing to hide, you've got nothing to fear

This system may not be able to detect lying directly, but the signs of fear are well known and should be detectable. We all know that if you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear. So if this system detects the signs of fear, it proves the subject is hiding information from the questioner – i.e lying.

Gary (profile) says:

Re: Re: If you've got nothing to hide, you've got nothing to fea

Or if they fear they ate some bad schnitzel, just got dumped, you are running late, it may rain on your dream vacation…

There really is no end to the reasons a human will show an emotional response.
In America, "Looking too calm" is a reason for a LEO to perform a search – we cover ALL the bases!

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: If you've got nothing to hide, you've got nothing to fear

Literally anyone with any kind of divergent neurotype knows they’re probably going to get flagged up falsely by these kinds of systems. Because they don’t take their normal baseline patterns of responses into account, same as how training people to spot "suspicious" behaviour singles out autistics most of the time. And as the scientific facts show, these kinds of systems get it wrong a significant percentage of the time anyway even with most people. And being false flagged by them can lead to some pretty nasty consequences. So yes, everyone has something to fear from them. Except, ironically, anyone trained to beat them as part of an actual effort to commit some kind of crime.

Sharur says:

Re: Stress-detector

In defense of the theory behind the system: It is designed to measure stress, yes, but it doesn’t take stress in and of itself as a measure of truth or lies, but rather spikes in stress when asked or answering questions, in relation to a baseline set by the individual subject.

Its still far from perfect, but its not "if you’re stressed out, you will fail".

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Stress-detector

Fear, anger, hate, contempt, shame… according to Dr. Paul Ekman (who I guess this comes from) humans have similar expressions when having these emotions, and even if they try to hide them, micro-expressions may betray them.

Whole issue with this is that:

  • Sometimes you find shit just because you’re looking for it. That is, you have "convinced" yourself that a person made a microexpression because that’s what you’re looking for.
  • Is there what they call a baseline? Something akin to a reference (you could call the "relaxed" status) to base the answers from. Can you make a baseline from someone being searched in the border with the limited amount of time you’re given?
  • Are the people doing this actual experts? And I’m not talking about the police or border officers, but about experts in detecting and interpreting microexpressions not so eager to point out a "criminal".
  • And then, are you interpreting things right? Ok, his microexpression shows fear. Why is he afraid? What is he afraid to? Are we assuming that he’s afraid of being caught? Maybe he’s just afraid of being caught falsely? No one is even so pure that will remain truly calm when the police is around.
  • And even if you are, you never know what they will come up with.

Of course, his theories have a lot of criticism and I guess they fall into something like pseudo-science, or at best, almost science. It’s like applying science to socioeconomics, sometimes you are accurate, others you make mistakes.

My take on this is that it can be accurate, but it isn’t for checks where you don’t get to know the person you’re checking, like in border searches.

And to make it work right, you need a thorough and unbiased analysis, something that the LEOs tend to lack.

Anonymous Coward says:

lie detector results said the system suggested that she should be subject to further checks

I sense several possible outcomes of further checks:

  • a feedback loop leads to even worse results, resulting further checks
  • at a certain point, border personnel will be fed up and get out their anal probe, resulting in further checks
  • the anal probe will ultimately detect that you’re a liar 100%, at which point you’ll be shipped to a black site to get the truth out
  • you will be released only and if you sign the paper that says 2 + 2 equals 5
Anonymous Coward says:

I suspect that at the heart of this is that some people believe a form of superstition which they call ‘science’ (not to be confused with the idea that logic is useful and allows one to learn about reality). It appears to a large number of such people (possibly a growning number) are in charge of/involved in policy making.

The other side is when they say ‘science’ they mean ‘reasonless fairy magic’, but many of the rest of us think "something that involved rational thought & analysis".

Anonymous Coward says:

Border Resistance Tour

Antifa and other "direct action" protest groups (including Extinction Rebellion, which Nike Spastic*** has amazingly labeled a "charity") have proposed a solution to the so-called "border garbage" issue. This graphic pulls few punches, though activists will presumably be inspired to replace the medieval instruments of war with something more modern. How many more William van Spronsens will emerge to take up the challenge?

Yes, yet another far-left Twitter account that openly advocates violence without being banned.

*** The name has been changed to avoid this site’s moderation queue

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Border Resistance Tour

How dare those anti-Antifa groups start adopting standard far-left tactics! (and a rather feeble attempt at that … next time, bring a loud angry mob with at least one megaphone)

Also interesting that it’s considered perfectably acceptable for reporters with camera crews to show up unannounced at people’s doorsteps, but reprehensible when the reverse happens.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Border Resistance Tour

so does Trump. El Cheetos really hates the free press too.

Should it surprise us that Trump has followed the trail blazed by his predecessor, Obama, who started the unprecedented prosecution of reporters under the Espionage Act? Like so many other things, the outrage only seemed to start when Trump continued Obama’s policies, and in the case of prosecuting reporters, Trump still has a long way to go to surpass Obama.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Border Resistance Tour

Like so many other things, the outrage only seemed to start when Trump continued Obama’s policies

You’re lying…

Anonymous Coward says:

Soon there will be specially trained leo individuals who have completed the Fear Detection Seminars geared toward teaching the art of smelling and seeing fear in or on a suspected terrorist or a plain citizen … doesn’t matter because you are all terrorists who need to be locked up, interrogated, abused and generally mistreated – just because.

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