Amir Liberman, the founder of Nemesysco, an Israeli company that internationally markets voice based lie detectors that simply don’t work, successfully pressured an academic journal into withdrawing the Internet availability of a peer-reviewed article that exposes Liberman’s lie detection “technology” for the pseudoscientific flapdoodle that it is.
Swedish linguists Anders Eriksson and Francisco Lacerda co-authored an article titled “Charlatanry in Speech Science: A Problem to Be Taken Seriously” that was published in the International Journal of Speech, Language and the Law (vol. 14, no. 2 ). Eriksson & Lacerda review several voice-based lie detectors, including Nemesysco’s “Layered Voice Analysis” (LVA) which the U.S. military’s Special Operations Command has purchased and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department is considering adopting. A variant of LVA customized for security checkpoints has reportedly been trialled at Moscow’s Domodedovo International Airport.
Eriksson & Lacerda point out that so-called “thorns” and “plateaus” — characteristics of digitized voice recordings that Nemesysco claims reflect emotional states — are merely artifacts produced by the digitization process! With regard to the LVA software, Eriksson & Lacerda note:
Contrary to the claims of sophistication — ‘The LVA software claims to be based on 8,000 mathematical algorithms applied to 129 voice frequencies’ (Damphousse et al. 2007: 15) — the LVA is a very simple program written in Visual Basic. The entire program code, published in the patent documents (Liberman 2003) comprises no more than 500 lines of code. It has to be said, though, that in order for it not to be possible to copy and run the program as is, some technical details like variable declarations are omitted, but the complete program is unlikely to comprise more than 800 or so lines. With respect to its alleged mathematical sophistication, there is really nothing in the program that requires any mathematical insights beyond very basic secondary school mathematics. To be sure, recursive filters and neural networks are also based on elementary mathematical operations but the crucial difference is that these operations are used in theoretically coherent systems, in contrast to the seemingly ad hoc implementation of LVA.
That the mathematics involved in LVA is simple is explained by the fact that despite apparently having styled himself as such, Nemesysco founder Amir Liberman is no mathematician, as Eriksson & Lacerda explain:
Who is Mr Liberman?
We might as well have asked: Who is Nemesysco, the company behind the LVA products, because Mr Liberman and Nemesysco seem to be one and the same. Damphousse et al. (2007: 14) report as follows: ‘The LVA was developed in Israel by Amir Lieberman [sic] who applied mathematic algorithm science to voice frequencies’, giving the impression that the program is based on some advanced mathematical theory. As we have pointed out, this is far from the truth. When we first became aware of the LVA, in connection with an attempt in 2004 to introduce the LVA on the Scandinavian market, we too were given the impression that Mr Liberman was indeed a high ranking Israeli mathematician. We do not know the origin of these rumours. It has been said that the information once appeared on the Nemesysco home pages but we have not been able to confirm this. Screening the Nemesysco home pages we became highly suspicious of these claims, however. To acquire more information about the person behind the products we consulted an Israeli colleague who is an active speech science researcher and asked him if he knew of a mathematician by that name. He did not. A controversy arose between us and the Scandinavian representatives of the LVA whom we, after a careful study of the LVA claims, accused of trying to peddle a bogus product. This controversy, partly fought in a newspaper, caught the interest of a journalist, Arne Lapidius, who was working in Israel for the Swedish daily Expressen. After some research he managed to locate Mr Liberman, a 32 year old (in 2004) businessman in a small office in the town of Natania. The business appeared to be a one-man operation. Mr Lapidus interviewed Mr Liberman about his academic background and was told that he basically had none. He has no degree (never had time to get one, he explains) but has taken some courses in marketing at an Israeli open university. As we have explained above, the LVA is a simple program written in rather amateurishly used Visual Basic. Given what we now know about Mr Liberman, that is about what one would expect rather than ‘8,000 mathematical algorithms applied to 129 voice frequencies’ (Damphousse et al. 2007: 15). What still remains for us to understand is how insurance companies, security agencies, police departments can be willing to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars, pounds, and euros in equipment without ever asking who are behind the products, what are their qualifications, what are the scientific principles upon which the products are based. The program code is part of the patent documents and may be downloaded from patents on-line. Any qualified speech scientist with some computer background can see at a glance, by consulting the documents, that the methods on which the program is based have no scientific validity. Why did those who so willingly invested huge amounts of money not even bother to look? For us this is the real puzzle.
Rather than rebutting Eriksson & Lacerda’s well-documented critique with facts, evidence, and reason, Amir Liberman instead instructed his lawyers to send a letter to Equinox Publishing, Ltd., the publisher of the journal in which the article appeared, threatening legal action if an apology and retraction were not forthcoming. Sadly, Equinox quickly succumbed to Nemesysco’s heavyhanded tactics, reaching a confidential (but no longer secret, as we shall see) settlement whereby Equinox removed the article from its website (where it had previously been available for purchase). Contacted by e-mail, Equinox managing director Janet Joyce confirmed that the company has never before done such a thing. The agreement with Nemesysco appears to have been purely a business decision on Equinox’s part, and it is important to note that the International Journal of Speech, Language, and the Law has not retracted or otherwise disavowed the article. Amir Liberman did not respond to an e-mailed request for comment. Eriksson and Lacerda, for their part, stand by their article.
Documents Reveal Legal Pressure
AntiPolygraph.org has obtained part of the correspondence between Nemesysco’s lawyers and Equinox that led to the agreement. The saga begins with a letter dated 3 November 2008 (300 kb PDF) from the Jerusalem law firm of Shimron, Molho, Persky & Co. to Equinox averring that Eriksson & Lacerda’s article “is seriously defamatory both of Mr Liberman and of Nemesysco Ltd.” and demanding an apology and retraction. The letter avers that “[t]he alleged defamations may be boiled down essentially to the following:”
- Our Clients’ technology does not work and cannot work and is therefore arbitrary and consequently worthless, contrary to our Clients’ claims with regard to it. This allegation is presented in various ways and pervades the Article.
- Our Clients are liars and charlatans (definition from Chambers online: “someone posing as an expert in some profession”). This is occasionally conveyed by means of sarcasm, giving the further implication (insofar as this is not already conveyed in the term “charlatan”) that the Clients are acting in bad faith by commercialising technology which they know does not work.
- In addition, our Clients are irresponsible and perhaps even reckless in allowing their technology to be used at all, and in particular at Domodedovo Airport, Moscow.
But the letter fails to specify even a single statement in the article that Mr. Liberman believes to be defamatory. Anticipating this criticism, his lawyers explain:
While it might be usual to provide examples from the Article demonstrating the said defamations, we refrain from doing so on the basis that no person acting in good faith could seriously argue that the article is not openly defamatory in the above ways – starting from its title.
Really? The reviewers who approved the article for publication would presumably disagree. And comments posted by outraged readers on popular websites such as Slashdot.org and Reddit.com suggest that many others would also disagree.
The next document we have is a follow-up letter (124 kb PDF) from Shimron, Molho, Persky & Co. dated 13 November 2008 responding to a letter from Equinox (no copy available). Liberman’s lawyers note with satisfaction that the article has been removed from Equinox’s website and proffer the following “counter offer”:
- You agree that neither reference to the Article, nor the Article itself, will be reinstated to your website.
- You agree to publish a statement (i) in a prominent place in the December, 2008 print edition of the Journal; and (ii) on the Journal’s homepage at http://equinoxjournals.com/ojs/index.php/IJSLL/index, http://www.politicaltheology.com/ojs/index.php/IJSLL/index and any other mirror-URLs, to state as follows (or agreed words to similar effect):
“In the December, 2007 edition of the International Journal of Speech, Language and the Law an article was published which made serious allegations concerning Mr Amir Liberman and Nemesysco, Ltd. We now accept that these allegations were largely unfounded and defamatory and withdraw them unreservedly. In addition we apologise for any distress and embarrassment caused by their publication.”
- If our Clients decide to provide one, you agree to publish a letter (of up to 750 words) from them in the December, 2008 edition of the Journal, setting out their objections to the article in question. The latter shall be published materially unamended.
- You agree to make a donation to a suitable charity of our Clients’ choice in lieu of our Cient’s [sic] legal costs.Our Clients have indicated that the above is the minimum they are willing to accept. While they are willing to negotiate over the wording of the statement and the letter, and the amount of the charitable donation, they are unwilling to negotiate over the principle of any.
A letter (20 kb PDF) from Janet Joyce dated 30 November 2008 replying to a letter (copy not unavailable) from Liberman’s lawyers dated three days earlier spells out the terms finally agreed upon by Nemesysco and Equinox:
- As we said in our previous letter dated 24 November, we are willing to undertake that Equinox will not republish the Article in the Journal or on our website. We are also willing to confirm that we will warn the Authors that they should not republish the Article in any other forum and that if they should submit a similar article to any publication they may face claims of defamation.
- In the spirit of compromise and in order to resolve all matters this week, we are willing to agree to the revised wording of text to be published contained in your letter of 27 November and which for certainty we have set out below: “In the December 2007 Edition of the International Journal of Speech, Language and the Law, an article was published which made serious allegations concerning Mr Amir Liberman and Nemesysco Limited. We have received complaints from Mr Liberman and Nemesysco Limited about the content of this article and particularly that the allegations made against them in it were highly defamatory, containing many inaccuracies and misleading statements. In addition, they complain that it was prepared without reference them and without giving them an opportunity to comment upon it. The Journal accepts that Mr Liberman and Nemesysco Limited were not asked to assist in the preparation of the article and further that they were not invited to comment on the content of the article prior to its publication where, in view of the content of the article, it would have been appropriate to invite them to do so. We have agreed to publish a letter from Mr Liberman and Nemesysco Limited setting out their objections to the article in more detail at pages [ to be inserted when pagination is known ] in the next issue of the journal.
- We await your letter (which will not exceed 750 words) and over which we will have final editorial review. As we have agreed, we shall let you know in advance of its publication any editorial amendments.
- We agree that – subject to being able to discuss the settlement with the Authors of the Article and the editors, the terms of settlement should remain confidential as between Equinox and your clients.
The note mentioned in para. 2 may be viewed on Equinox’s website here. Nemesysco’s attempt to suppress Eriksson & Lacerda’s article has backfired. Badly.
The Internet abhors censorship, and from an initial post on a University of Stockholm linguistics blog, news of Nemesysco’s coercive endeavor to discredit the authors and restrict public access to the paper eventually spread like wildfire. In an example of what has been dubbed “the Streisand effect,” copies of Eriksson & Lacerda’s article have been anonymously posted on Scribd.com (where it has been viewed more than 7,000 times) and WikiLeaks.org, and it may also be downloaded via BitTorrent. In addition, the controversy over the suppression of the article has recently been noted on the website of the premiere scientific journal, Nature.
AntiPolygraph.org deplores Equinox’s decision to accede to Nemesysco’s bullying. To the extent that Anders Eriksson and Francisco Lacerda characterized “Layered Voice Analysis” as charlatanry, they were fully justified in so doing. That’s precisely what it is. Nemesysco founder Amir Liberman is a charlatan, and those who would squander public monies on his emperor’s-new clothes technology should be held up to public ridicule.