The Truth in the Palm of Our Hands

The Pentagon has issued hand held lie detectors to soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq.  According to an article on msn.com “New Anti-Terror Weapon”, these devices are accurate enough to save lives.  These hand held lie detectors can narrow the list of possible terrorists after a roadside bombing, or weed out possible terrorists who apply for positions as interpreters or translators.

Donald Krapohl, special assistant to the director at the Defense Academy for Credibility Assessment stated, “We’re not promising perfection but we are promising that, if properly used, it will improve over what they are currently doing.”  However there are people against such an idea.  Statistics professor Stephen Fienberg headed a study by the National Academy of Sciences that found insufficient evidence to support using polygraphs for national security.

This new device is known as PCASS Preliminary Credibility Assessment Screening System has three wires that are connected to a person’s hand.  An interpreter would ask a person a series of about 20 questions.  The operator who could be as young as 18 years old with only a weeks training punches in the answer and then waits a few seconds.  The screen will then either display green for truthful answers, red for deceptive answers and yellow for not certain. Congress has not held any hearing on the PCASS device, which costs approximately $7,500 dollars per unit.

Supporters of this fairly new device say that they are reliable but the National Academy of Sciences purports that they are, “well above chance, though well below perfection.” Polygraphs, in general,  have sparked lots of debates throughout the years and like a polygraph this lie detecting device uses two electrodes to measure stress through changes in electrical conductivity of the skin.  It can also gauge activity with a pulse oximeter, which is clipped to a finger.  It does not however, measure blood pressure as a regular polygraph does and which some may argue is a good indicator of deception.

Another fact to take into consideration is that PCASS examiners are not as qualified or highly trained as polygraph examiners who have a four year college degree, a 13 week training course and a six month internship and with all this polygraph results are still not admissible in court.  The average soldier implementing this new technology will be mostly mid-level personnel that have only had a week’s worth of training.

David Thompson, team leader of the counterintelligence human intelligence support team at Cropper says, “The ability of the collector to filter truth from fiction is highly dependent on the individual collector’s training and real world experience.”  Karphol’s (Defense Academy) goes on to state, “Let’s take a worst-case scenario and say PCASS really is 60 percent accurate…So let’s get rid of the PCASS because it makes errors and go back to the approach we’re currently using, which has less accuracy…that’s really quite untenable if we’re interested in saving American lives…”

Pentagon officials say that this new device will not be used to make final decisions but only as a triage device to pare down large groups of people into smaller groups.  Karpohl and the Defense Department say that they hope to develop better tools in the future.  Meanwhile, by being portable and better than human intuition, PCASS can indeed be helpful in a war zone.

What do you think about this new device?  Do you think that these results would still be helpful if the operators of these devices were not highly trained?

4 responses to “The Truth in the Palm of Our Hands”

  1. Ramon E. Garcia says:

    i am an Ekman and Humintell fan, i also am a software programmer, and i can say that machine will never be as smart as a human, in would rather spend all that training months or years studying behavioral science.

  2. tld says:

    “The Pentagon has issued hand held lie detectors to soldiers in Afghanistan and Iran”

    Have I missed something or could it be Afghanistan and *Iraq*?

    As for the device itself, I have serious doubts. The arguments seem to be comparing “what was done before” with using just the device, but that’s not really understanding the situation nor the problem I think.

    If I understand things about right, I think they’re adding the device to the old process, more than fully replacing old with new. I think that the device is another data-point for them, but it seems they’re forgetting the datapoint will still just filtered into the fallible judgement of a human being.

    Even if we pretend it’s a given that a week of training is enough to skillfully operate the device, that’s not where the problem is, is it?

    I think the problem is with evaluating how to combine the extra datapoint with everything else, not overestimating it’s importance and accuracy.

    That requires, even demands, a better understanding of people, influences (of both subject and operator), and pure age, than a kid with a week of training can possibly have.

    Just my initial thoughts.

    – tld

  3. tld, you are correct the hand held lie detectors have been issued to soldiers in Iraq not Iran and are more recently being issued to soldiers in Afghanistan.

    Also, they are adding this device in combination with other processes that are already in place for detecting deception and/or screening people.

    It would not be wise to oversestimate the accuracy of this device as you suggested and as Pentagon officials have stated it should be used as a “triage” device to augment personnel decisions and not in final decision making of whether someone is being deceptive or not.

  4. WC says:

    I think that putting a machine over in that part of the world to determine something so serious is ridiculous. I can already foresee an explosion going off somewhere and then all suspects being captured. Even if none of them did it, their emotions from thinking about the explosion or given situation would send that machines decision into the red zone. So I guess a polygraph and that thing are technically always 100% correct about what a person is feeling.

    Cheers WC

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