Airport Show
13 - 15 May 2025

Held under the patronage of H.H. Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, President of the Dubai Civil Aviation Authority, Chairman of Dubai Airports, Chairman and Chief Executive of Emirates Airline and Group

Behavioural Profiling – The Controversial Next Step in Upgrading Airport Security

Airport security provides every air traveller with one of society’s greatest questions in microcosm – how much of our privacy and convenience are we willing to sacrifice in order to remain safe? Admittedly, passengers don’t get much of a choice and must follow airport security processes or be denied entry, but it’s still a question that airport operators take very seriously indeed. With major hub destinations enjoying multiple route options, travellers can in fact ‘vote with their feet’ and use the airports they feel offer the best combination of security, convenience, comfort and privacy for their travelling experience. 

With leading international airports eager to get this formula right, any emerging security-based technology needs to be rigorously tested and implemented with due care and consideration. In this context, the best form of security is that which works effectively but without ever imposing on the customers it has been designed to protect. We can see this ideal at work with the latest generation of biometrics-based security tech, which has led to various ‘Smart Path’, ‘Smart Tunnel’ and ‘Smart Walkway’ initiatives being successfully trialled and launched in airports such as Brisbane and Dubai International Airport, where 20,000 passengers successfully cleared immigration in the service’s opening 8 months without showing any identification.


Enter AVATAR – Security-based behavioural profiling

While border security guards at leading airports have long had various technological aids to assist them in determining whether the person before them should or should not be granted entry, there is a new and somewhat controversial addition to their toolkit currently being trialled. 

Taken from an AI lie detection system first developed by the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the University of Arizona developed AVATAR – Automated Virtual Agent for Truth Assessment in Real-Time. In terms of customer interaction, AVATAR is an interactive electronic interviewer capable of asking questions and then tracking and analysing thousands of signals from the subject’s voice, body and eyes as they answer. Once fed through its algorithm, the system decides on a colour-coded assessment for the border guard to utilise:

Green – The subject is clear to pass

Yellow – There are some issues to be investigated

Red – There are serious issues that require deeper investigation

Current expert analysis suggests that humans are only capable of detecting deception roughly 54% of the time, while AI systems such as AVATAR claim around an 80% accuracy rate in multiple studies, with hopes to push that figure even higher in field tests. Currently the Canadian Border Services Agency and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security are running such tests, with a view towards rolling AVATAR out across major airports pending governmental approval. 


The Future of Airport Security?

It’s almost a certainty that AI will play a significant role in the future of our airports’ security, as the melding of humans and artificial intelligence is already proving to be the key to unlocking higher efficiency and effectiveness in myriad other industries and also across other aviation functions. 

However, the use of AVATAR and similar behavioural profiling systems carries with it a highly charged potential for customer backlash and even legal/regulatory concerns. Critics of the system cite the legal provision that polygraph ‘lie detector’ test results are not admissible in US courts because there is no proven scientific principle that shows irrefutably that humans have a ‘lie response’ to detect. At best, AVATAR may prove an invaluable tool for helping border guards decide when passengers need to be questioned and/or investigated further. At worst, it may prove too unnerving and inaccurate in the face of massed consumer testing, and could cause more problems than it solves. 

For now, the future of behaviour profiling technology in airports is a question being put to the test.


This article was created in association with Airport Show taking place in Dubai on 24-26 May 2021. 


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