New lie detection technology too much like scientific mind reading, ethicist says

Stanford News Service intern Emily Saarman reports on law professor and ethicist Henry T. “Hank” Greely‘s concerns about the marketing fMRI-based lie detection without adequate study and peer-review:

New lie detection technology too much like scientific mind reading, ethicist says

Companies plan to begin selling fMRI services by end of year, but, with no regulation, utility of technique need not be proved

BY EMILY SAARMAN

For many, the phrase “lie detection” probably brings to mind an image of a polygraph machine and an intimidating movie-style interrogation, possibly with a subject who could expertly “beat the polygraph.” But ethicist and law Professor Hank Greely said this image is about to change.  

Recent advances in neuroscience promise to bring lie detection technology far beyond the notoriously unreliable polygraph and into a realm that Greely said bears eerie resemblance to scientific mind reading.

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Melissa Mahle on CIA Use of Polygraphs

In a blog entry titled “Leakscape,” retired CIA officer Melissa Mahle discusses, among other things, the unreliability of the polygraph:

The polygraph is a very blunt instrument and not accurate. If an officer registers any discomfort on a question, the polygrapher will hone in on the issue. After being asked the same question 100 times, the poor person on the box is feeling so beat up that the emotional reaction gets stronger and stronger as a function of the test, not the issue. Once there is suspicion, it is impossible to make it go away. The CIA just does not accept exculpatory information, even if it comes from a CIA counterintelligence investigation. Suspicion equals guilt. Putting this in the context of Ms. McCarthy, it is easy to imagine that an admission of contacts with the press becomes a presumption of leaks to the press. How do you prove a negative?

Polygraph Results Often in Question: CIA, FBI Defend Test’s Use in Probes

Today’s lead story in the Washington Post by staff writers Dan Eggen and Shankar Vedantam takes a critical look at expanding governmental reliance on lie detectors. The article is cited here in full, interspersed with commentary. A discussion of this article is also available on the AntiPolygraph.org message board here.

Polygraph Results Often in Question

CIA, FBI Defend Test’s Use in Probes

By Dan Eggen and Shankar Vedantam
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, May 1, 2006; A01

The CIA, the FBI and other federal agencies are using polygraph machines more than ever to screen applicants and hunt for lawbreakers, even as scientists have become more certain that the equipment is ineffective in accurately detecting when people are lying.

Instead, many experts say, the real utility of the polygraph machine, or “lie detector,” is that many of the tens of thousands of people who are subjected to it each year believe that it works — and thus will frequently admit to things they might not otherwise acknowledge during an interview or interrogation.

Many researchers and defense attorneys say the technology is prone to a high number of false results that have stalled or derailed hundreds of careers and have prevented many qualified applicants from joining the fight against terrorism. At the FBI, for example, about 25 percent of applicants fail a polygraph exam each year, according to the bureau’s security director.

The article does not make it clear whether the 25% polygraph failure rate referenced means 25% of all applicants (included those disqualified before they reach the polygraph stage) or if it is only 25% of those polygraphed who are failing. If the latter is the case, then the information provided by the FBI’s security director indicates a major change. In 2002, the FBI’s pre-employment polygraph failure rate was reportedly on the order of 50%. Somehow, that rate may have been cut in half. Are there fewer liars applying to the FBI (not that we think anything close to half of applicants are lying about disqualifying information)? Not likely. The halving of the polygraph failure rate could only be explained by a bureaucratic decision to arbitrarily adjust the failure rate downward.

The polygraph has emerged as a pivotal tool in the CIA’s aggressive effort to identify suspected leakers after embarrassing disclosures about government anti-terrorism tactics. The agency fired a veteran officer, Mary O. McCarthy, on April 20, alleging that she had shared classified information and operational details with The Washington Post and other news organizations, a charge her lawyer disputes.

CIA officials have said that McCarthy failed more than one polygraph examination administered by the CIA, but the details surrounding those interviews remain unclear. Dozens of senior-level CIA officials have been subjected to polygraph tests as part of the inquiry, which is aimed at identifying employees who may have talked to reporters about classified programs, including providing information about the agency’s network of secret prisons for terrorism suspects.

“The reason an officer at CIA was terminated was for having unauthorized contact with the media and the improper release of classified information,” said Paul Gimigliano, a CIA spokesman. “Don’t think in terms of a failure of a polygraph being the reason for termination — the polygraph is one tool in an investigative process.”

If the CIA does not terminate people for failing lie detector tests about unauthorized contact with the media or unauthorized disclosure of classified information, then is it not in the interest of all CIA employees who fail the polygraph to make no admissions?

In the popular mind, fueled by Hollywood representations, polygraphs are lie-detection machines that can peer inside people’s heads to determine whether they are telling the truth.

The scientific reality is far different: The machines measure various physiological changes, including in blood pressure and heart rate, to determine when subjects are getting anxious, based on the idea that deception involves an element of anxiety. But because an emotion such as anxiety can be triggered by many factors other than lying, experts worry that the tests can overlook smooth-talking liars while pointing a finger at innocent people who just happen to be rattled.

In settings in which large numbers of employees are screened to determine whether they are spies, the polygraph produces results that are extremely problematic, according to a comprehensive 2002 review by a federal panel of distinguished scientists. The study found that if polygraphs were administered to a group of 10,000 people that included 10 spies, nearly 1,600 innocent people would fail the test — and two of the spies would pass.

The above example from the National Academy of Sciences report, The Polygraph and Lie Detection (see pp. 5-7), wherein the polygraph correctly identifies 8 out of 10 spies but also wrongly implicates 1,600 innocent people was intended to illustrate the base rate problem in statistics, where even an accurate test can deliver unreliable results when used on a large population to screen for a rare condition. This example assumes, for illustration purposes, a 80% accuracy rate for the polygraph. The NAS was by no means claiming that polygraphy is so accurate as that. And the availability of simple countermeasures that polygraphers cannot detect makes it all the more unlikely that any actual spies will be included among those who “fail” the polygraph.

“Its accuracy in distinguishing actual or potential security violators from innocent test takers is insufficient to justify reliance on its use in employee security screening in federal agencies,” the panel concluded.

This is the key finding of the NAS report. One that federal agencies have studiously ignored. 

Polygraph test results are also generally inadmissible in federal courts and in most state courts because of doubts about their reliability. Statements or admissions made by test subjects during a polygraph session, however, can often be used by prosecutors at trial, according to legal experts.

But even critics of the polygraph concede that it can help managers learn things about employees that would otherwise remain hidden. That aspect of polygraph testing lies at the heart of its continuing appeal, said Alan Zelicoff, a former scientist at Sandia National Laboratories who quit because he believed that polygraphs are unethical.

Dr. Zelicoff didn’t just quit. He was retaliated against and pressured into resigning because of his public criticism of polygraphy, including his 27 May 2003 Washington Post op-ed piece, “Polygraphs: Worse than Worthless.” See his article The Polygraph vs. National Security (17kb PDF) on the Federation of American Scientists website, discussion of which is available here, for more on the retaliation he encountered.

Although polygraph tests involving national security are supposed to be about a handful of questions involving espionage, Zelicoff said the tests take hours: “In each and every test, what happens is after question two or three the questioner will pause and very deliberately take a long hard look at the chart and take a deep breath and sigh and say, ‘You did really well on question one, but on the second question, about whether you released classified information, I am getting a strange reading. Tell you what — I am going to turn the machine off and I am going to ask whether there is something you want to get off your chest.’ ”

“That is what the polygraph is about,” said Zelicoff, who has testimony from several employees who are angry about the tests. “It is about an excuse to conduct a wide-ranging inquisition.”

The subjective opinions of polygraph examiners play a huge role in whether people are said to pass or fail, said William Iacono, a psychologist at the University of Minnesota who has extensively studied the technique. As evidence, Iacono said that polygraph tests rarely find problems among senior staff members at organizations, even as 30 to 40 percent of applicants for entry-level positions fail.

“The director of the CIA just took a test,” said Iacono. “How would you like to be the examiner who gave him a test and say he failed? What kind of a career would you have?”

Professor Iacono is precisely right. When the director of the CIA submits to a polygraph “test,” it’s just for show. He need not fear a false positive outcome because his odds of failing are zero. No polygrapher in his right mind is going to accuse his director of deception.

The president of the American Polygraph Association, T.V. O’Malley, said polygraph technology is held to an unfair standard in many cases, and he compared it to mammograms and other medical screening procedures that are imperfect but valuable in detecting problems. He also acknowledged that some of the polygraph’s value is simply in prompting people to tell the truth.

“It’s kind of like confessing . . . to a priest: You feel a little better by getting rid of your baggage,” O’Malley said. “The same thing often happens with a polygraph examination.”

Mary O. McCarthy didn’t “feel a little better” after making admissions to her polygrapher. She got fired. Since the CIA indicates that employees are not fired simply for failing the polygraph, employees who fail are likely to feel better if they keep their mouths  shut. 

Charles S. Phalen Jr., the FBI’s assistant director for security, said the polygraph is a vital component of the bureau’s security program.

“This is the most effective collection tool that we have in our arsenal of security tools to identify disqualifying behavior and disqualifying activities,” Phalen said. “I will never sit here and say this is a perfect tool because it’s not. . . . In and of itself it won’t produce the truth, but it’s a way at getting at the truth.”

The polygraph is only “a way at getting at the truth” if a person chooses to make admissions. Otherwise, its all pseudoscienific flapdoodle. In the words of retired CIA polygrapher John Sullivan, “Polygraph is more art than science, and unless an admission is obtained, the final determination is frequently what we refer to as a scientific wild-ass guess (SWAG). Yet the FBI, CIA, NSA, and other agencies that rely on this nonsense are wrongly excluding from employment those who make no disqualifying admissions, simply because their polygraph charts zigged when they should have zagged.

The ubiquity of polygraph testing in the federal government is due in large part to spy scandals that rocked the government over the past dozen years, including those involving Aldrich Ames at the CIA and Robert P. Hanssen at the FBI. Ames was allowed to continue working despite questionable polygraph results, whereas Hanssen was never given a lie-detector exam during his long FBI career.

Aldrich Ames’ polygraph results only became “questionable” after he was exposed as a spy by more traditional investigative means. Aldrich Ames passed his polygraphs while spying for the Russians. Twice. Attempts by polygraphers to rationalize this by claiming that he did show deception but somehow managed to talk his way out of it are intellectually dishonest attempts to rationalize a colossal failure of the polygraph. See, “Could the Polygraph Have Caught Aldrich Ames” at pp. 37-39 of The Lie Behind the Lie Detector (1mb PDF).

Previous efforts to implement wide-scale testing were met with fierce opposition not only from rank-and-file employees but also from senior government officials. In 1985, President Ronald Reagan scaled back an order requiring thousands of government employees to submit to polygraphs after Secretary of State George P. Shultz threatened to resign if ordered to take one.

As part of changes implemented after Hanssen’s arrest in 2001, the FBI now conducts about 8,000 polygraph tests each year, most of which involve current employees, applicants and contractors. All applicants and new employees undergo a polygraph at the FBI, and nearly every employee — including the director — is subject to a new test every five years, officials said.

The CIA enacted broader testing policies after Ames’s unmasking. At the Department of Energy, which implemented changes as a result of the Wen Ho Lee case, about 20,000 employees are currently eligible for mandatory polygraph screening tests. (Lee, a former nuclear weapons scientist, was held by the government for purportedly smuggling weapon-design secrets to China; all but one charge was dropped.)

Regarding the use of polygraphs in the investigation of Wen Ho Lee, see “The Case of Wen Ho Lee” beginning at p. 52 of The Lie Behind the Lie Detector.

The Department of Energy is considering scaling back its program to focus on 4,500 employees with access to the most sensitive information, in large part because of the 2002 analysis by the federal panel, according to a congressional report released last week.

Many scientists who criticize polygraphs as a screening tool say the machines can be effective when used as part of a “guilty-knowledge test.” In a bank robbery investigation, for example, suspects could be quizzed in multiple-choice tests on whether they knew if the weapon used was a gun or a knife, whether the money taken was $10, $1,000 or $10,000.

Focused questions that test whether people have memory of an event yield far more reliable results than open-ended screening tests that rely on emotions that can be triggered by a wide range of factors, said Iacono, who added that the federal government has resolutely refused to use the guilty-knowledge test. Officials have declined to describe the kind of tests McCarthy underwent at the CIA.

Regarding the Guilty Knowledge Test, see “The Body on the Stairs: A Pedagogical Detective Story” (2.2mb PDF), Chapter 21 of the 1st edition of Professor David T. Lykken’s seminal work on polygraphy, A Tremor in the Blood: Uses and Abuses of the Lie Detector.

Iacono said conventional polygraph tests have little scientific validity but allow examiners to say, “I am getting the sense you are holding something back; is there something you want to tell me?”

“When people hear that, they admit things it would be difficult to get in any other way,” he said. “People will confess to crimes or make admissions about themselves or other people. They may reveal suspicions about a co-worker or explain they did something they should not have done. The government loves that.”

Researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

As public awareness that polygraph “testing” is a sham grows, its utility for getting admissions can only wane. Please join AntiPolygraph.org in helping to spread the news.

The Tennesean Supports State Ban on Polygraphing Rape Victims

In an editorial titled, “Don’t accuse rape victims,” The Tennesean voices it support for legislation that would outlaw the wrongheaded police practice of requiring those who report having been the victims of rape to submit to a lie detector “test” before investigating the complaint:

Monday, 05/01/06

Don’t accuse rape victims

A rape victim shouldn’t be victimized yet again by the process of seeking justice, and the legislature is on the right path in asserting that principle.

The House voted 77-10 to approve a bill prohibiting law enforcement officials from requiring an alleged rape victim to take a lie detector test in order to proceed with an investigation. The vote follows the 27-1 approval of a similar bill in the Senate. The House bill would still allow law enforcement to request such a test. An agreement between the two versions should be easy to achieve.

One House member who voted against the bill said that without a polygraph test, there would be no way to determine if the alleged victim was telling the truth. But police don’t require people who report car thefts, burglaries or other types of crimes to take lie detector tests. They assume the person reporting a crime is telling the truth unless evidence to the contrary surfaces. Why should rape victims be any more likely to lie?

Traditionally, victims of rape and abuse have been reluctant to come forward, talk to the police and press charges against an attacker. Requiring a lie detector test of the rape victim would be a huge deterrent to reporting a crime. Any law enforcement official who would force a victim to take a polygraph test would be placing an undue burden on the victim. The bill stops any chance of that happening.

At every turn, victims should feel security in reporting crimes. The legislation shows that lawmakers understand that need, and the bill should become law. •

Greensboro City Council Lampooned, Member Defends Decision

PleadTheFirst lampoons the Greensboro, North Carolina City Council‘s decision to administer lie detector tests to itself with two scathing cartoons and City Council member Sandy Carmany defends the council’s polygraph decision in a post on her blog titled, The Power to Pull the Plug.

Greensboro Polygraph Follies Update

Polygraph “testing” of eight of nine Greensboro City Council members appears set to begin this week in an ostensible attempt to discover who amongst them provided an investigative report on the city’s former police chief to the local News & Record newspaper. To date, none of the city council members have responded to George Maschke’s e-mail cautioning them about polygraphy’s lack of scientific basis, inherent bias against the truthful, and vulnerability to simple countermeasures.

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Polygraphs Target Leak Cases

Andrew Zajac of the Chicago Tribune reports on the CIA’s reliance on the polygraph in its efforts to detect and deter unauthorized truth-telling. This feature article is cited in its entirety:

Polygraphs target leak cases

U.S. intelligence, FBI use tool to police their ranks, but some say it is vulnerable to abuse

By Andrew Zajac
Washington Bureau

April 29, 2006

WASHINGTON — When CIA officials sought to ferret out who leaked secrets to a journalist, they quickly turned to a polygraph test to winnow the pool of likely suspects, including longtime analyst Mary McCarthy.

The outcome of McCarthy’s test is not known, and her lawyer, Ty Cobb, declined to comment. But McCarthy, who had announced plans to retire, acknowledged unauthorized contacts with reporters, according to the CIA, which fired her last week.

Long used in criminal inquiries, pre-employment screening and security investigations, polygraph testing has assumed a new importance in secrecy-obsessed Washington, particularly after leaks from the CIA and the National Security Agency led to headline-grabbing news stories late last year.

The prospect of being subject to a polygraph exam, which can be an exceedingly unpleasant process, is among the factors would-be leakers and whistle-blowers now must weigh when deciding whether to reach out to reporters if they can’t find a receptive audience elsewhere, those familiar with the workings of Washington say.

“The Justice Department doesn’t want to hear it. The [congressional] oversight committees don’t want to hear it. So you have to decide if you want to go to the press, [but] because of the pressure of the polygraph, that’s not an easy thing to overcome,” said a retired CIA officer. “It’s an ugly, intrusive weapon.”

A CIA spokesperson said that agency’s polygraph program “operates under strict guidelines with standardized policies and procedures.”

Even advocates of using polygraph tests acknowledge that they can be rigged to “flunk” subjects, that the technology is hardly foolproof and that the results can be open to interpretation.

Most notoriously, former CIA agent Aldrich Ames, whose sale of secrets to the Soviet Union led to the deaths of at least 10 people, passed at least two polygraph tests while aiding the Soviets.

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Dana Priest on Polygraphs

Dana Priest, the Washington Post intelligence reporter whose Pulitzer Prize-winning exposé on the CIA’s secret prison network set up to evade U.S. and international law led to a polygraph hunt for leakers at CIA, answered, among others, a question about polygraphs in an on-line chat session held on Thursday, 27 April 2006:

Gaithersburg, Md.: With the firing of Mary McCarthy last week by the CIA, there’s been mention in articles about the use of polygraphs at the agency during their investigations into leaks.

From personal experience, I can say that the machine is not fool proof by any stretch of the imagine. Several years ago, while going through the security clearance process, I was subjected to the polygraph. I failed it the first time, for what the examiner said, was an issue involving questions on terrorist and subversive activity. What nonsense! The second time I failed because I was, according to a different examiner, not being fully truthful about having dealt drugs. Again, what nonsense! On the third attempt, I did pass the polygraph. The problem? I did, in fact, not tell the truth – at the time (though not today) I was doing quite a large amount of popular “club drugs.”

My question for you is, my experiences aside, how effective do you believe the polygraph to really be?

Dana Priest: Well, the CIA thinks they are reliable enough to use in security checks. But courts don’t recognize them. And George Shultz, the former secretary of state, vowed to leave government if ever he was subjected….so go figure. controversial to say the least.