Russia's lie-detecting ATM: not just a KGB fantasy

Designed by a company whose clients include the KGB's successor, the new ATM performs facial recognition, reads fingerprints, and checks voiceprints to determine whether users are lying.

It's part ATM, part robocop. It'll check your fingerprints, give you a lie detector test and then, maybe, dispense some cash.

If it sounds to you like an idea the old KGB would have come up with, you're close.

The cutting-edge voice recognition and analysis technologies built into a new ATM were developed by the Speech Technology Center (STC), a Russian company whose other clients include the FSB security service (and primary successor to the KGB), the MVD national police, and dozens of other law enforcement clients around the world. The technologies are being tested for use by the state-owned Sberbank, Russia's largest retail bank.

In a press release Friday, Sberbank said the new machines, to be eventually introduced in bank branches and shopping malls around Russia, will be the first of their kind in the world, able to sniff out fraud with a wide variety of high-tech tools.

The "bankomat of the future" – as Sberbank would have it – will be able to scan passports, record fingerprints, and perform a 3D facial recognition scan.

The voice technologies developed by STC will enable the machine to talk with a client in plain Russian, recognize his or her unique "voiceprint," and test voice levels for signs of nervousness, anger, or deceit.

Much more than a standard ATM, the machine will be empowered to handle a variety of banking operations that usually require human clerks, including approving loan and credit card applications.

Critics warn that the new machines raise a host of thorny privacy issues, whose implications should be studied closely before Sberbank is allowed to roll the super ATM's out for public use.

"I am not enthusiastic about this idea," says Pavel Medvedev, deputy chair of the State Duma committee on credit and financial institutions. "With things like this, the devil is in the details."

But Alexei Khitrov, director of strategic development for STC, says that many of the voice recognition technologies that his company is contributing are already in widespread use in the West and are spreading rapidly because they are extremely convenient.

"Speech recognition has to be developed separately for each language, and we have done it for Russian, but it's long been in use for English," he says. "The ability to identify a person's voice – just as unique as a fingerprint – is very useful, and so is the capability to detect emotional fluctuations in a person's speech. It's important to know if a client is upset or angry."

The system uses law enforcement databases to test a potential client's reaction to questions like "are you employed," or "do you have any outstanding loans," to make a determination about the truthfulness of the answers.

"We are not violating a client’s privacy," Viktor Orlovsky, a senior vice president at Sberbank told journalists. "We are not climbing into the client’s brain. We aren’t invading their personal lives. We are just trying to find out if they are telling the truth. I don’t see any reason to be alarmed."

But Dmitry Orlov, vice president of the First Republican Bank, a competitor of Sberbank, says he is not sure Russian customers are ready for the level of intrusiveness the new machines will bring.

"In my experience, when people are asking for credit they prefer to talk to a human being, in confidence" he says. "These new technologies will bring entirely new rules, and I think that scares quite a few people."

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