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UK border agency puts risk assessment on trial

What are the chances you're a terrorist?

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The Home Office has started testing how it might pick potential terrorists and criminals out of immigration queues by using computers that which give them risk scores generated from their personal details.

Ian Neill, deputy director of the Home Office's eBorders programme, said the trial of risk scoring was already under way in the UK and was being managed by the Detection department of HM Revenue and Customs as an offshoot of Project Semaphore, the UK's hi-tech border vetting trial.

"We are looking at working up risk assessment profiles," he said, "But it's exploratory work".

Run by the Joint Border Operations Centre, a joint venture of police, customs and border officials, the UK's Semaphore trial has to date merely checked people against police and immigration watch-lists in order to stop "known" terrorists and criminals travelling through UK border posts.

Although he is responsible for Semaphore, Neill did not elaborate on how the risk assessment trial might work - i.e. what data it pulled from what sources in order to generate a risk score for each traveller.

The US's Automated Targeting System has been criticized by the civil rights lobby for being an "illegal" affront to human dignity, as well as a disproportionate and unreliable use of resources in the war on terror.

The US' ATS draws data from passenger lists, criminal and civil databases, detailed travel histories and recent transit routes and pumps it all through computer algorithms designed to tell if someone's suspicious enough to warrant closer inspection. It was kept secret until it was unearthed by the press last November.

Ignoring civil rights critics, the US has pressed ahead with the next generation of computers that do risk assessments of people.

The US' Future Attribute Screening Technology (FAST) proposes to have intelligent cameras watch for tell tale signs in people's facial expressions, levels of perspiration, eye positioning, gait, mannerisms and even distribution of body heat to determine how likely it is that they are up to no good.

Neill was at pains to distance Semaphore from anything so radical. "Our alerts are based on concrete information. It's not speculative in any way," he said.

But it is not clear how a risk assessment is anything but speculative.

One defence the US Department of Homeland Security uses against critics is that border guards make the final decisions about who gets pulled up for interrogation - the computers merely advise them.®

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