Deception Is Futile When Big Brother’s Lie Detector Turns Its Eyes on You


Alan Bersin, commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, arrives at the gloomy US border post in Nogales, Arizona, early one winter morning wearing an expression of mildly pained concentration.

He got up before dawn and now looks as if he’d rather be anywhere else. In the immigration lanes downstairs, a procession of pickups and SUVs nudge dejectedly in from Mexico, taillights blinking through a relentless drizzle. Bersin arrived late, and he seems in no mood to assess the state of the art in automated psychophysiological evaluation technology. Yet there it is, pushed up against the wall of a cramped back office at the DeConcini Port of Entry: a gray metal box about the size and shape of an ATM, with two softly glowing video monitors, one on top of the other.

Bersin, a self-assured bureaucrat and a Rhodes Scholar who studied at Oxford with Bill Clinton, approaches the device. The lower monitor displays an icon of an oversize red button; the upper screen shows the head and shoulders of a smoothly rendered, computer-generated young man blinking and occasionally suffering a slight electronic shudder. He appears to be in his twenties and has an improbably luxuriant head of blue-black hair combed back in a sumptuous pompadour. This is the Embodied Avatar, the personification of the latest software developed to help secure the nation’s frontiers by delivering what its creator calls “a noninvasive credibility assessment”—sifting dishonest travelers from honest ones. Which is to say, this late-model Max Headroom is a lie detector.

Please answer each question truthfully.

Suspicious behavior detected.

Wait for an agent.

Bersin taps the red button to start the test, and in an agreeable Midwestern voice, the avatar asks Bersin a series of questions.

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