Wednesday, February 26, 2003

Polygraphs and the First Amendment

The polygraph, or "Lie Detector Machine" is an imperfect device that, despite its lack of reliability, is being used more and more as a tool of employers and government in situations where truthful responses are deemed important. Now, as with many areas these days, the government is attempting to use the veneer of "Homeland Security" to erode away our rights; in this case, our right to make ourselves aware of the value and faults of the polygraph device, not to mention our right to be considered innocent before even being charged with anything, let alone convicted of a crime. They are doing this as a way to pass broad new powers to test more and more citizens, disregarding the presumption of innocence. The only way that the polygraph can be effective is if the interrogator assumes that the subject is guilty of something, and the subject must be convinced that the device is effective. Thus, the government's chief polygraph instructor has recommended that even possessing written information about the polygraph should be made illegal. As reported on
Paul M. Menges, a federal polygraph examiner and instructor who currently teaches the Department of Defense Polygraph Institute's countermeasure course, argues in a recent article titled "Ethical Considerations of Providing Polygraph Countermeasures to the Public" (Polygraph, Vol. 31 [2002], No. 4, pp. 254-262), that publicly making available such information is unethical and concludes with the suggestion that it should be outlawed. The present article is a response to Mr. Menges' arguments. Since Polygraph, the quarterly publication of the American Polygraph Association, is not readily available to most members of the public, I will be [...] citing the abstract of Mr. Menges' article. is an organization that advocates the banning of the polygraph, mostly because it is unreliable. Part of the way they point this out is by publishing an EBook that purports to explain how the polygraph works, and offers tactics and advice that, they say, will defeat it. Now along comes the government proposing to ban the publishing and dissemination of this book. Aside from the first amendment concerns of banning ANY book, in these times we can take nothing for granted. In the event that such a ban is passed and the book becomes unavailable, it just might be prudent to download it now.

I strongly recommend that you peruse the website. It goes over many aspects of polygraphy: its history, use, and abuse. The coercive nature of polygraph examinations as used in employment and the war against (some) drugs is contrasted with data showing just how inaccurate and unreliable the testing device is, and the links to stories of careers and lives destroyed by overzealous prosecutors and employers makes for some very absorbing reading. Don't click on the link unless you have plenty of time, because this is a site that you can't just skim and forget. In these times we are all seeking just a little more security, and any tool that promises to unearth a few more terrorists is tempting. But, after reading some of these articles, one may decide that this is one tool that we can live without... the cost to our way of life may be too great.
"[Polygraph screening] is completely without any theoretical foundation and has absolutely no validity...the diagnostic value of this type of testing is no more than that of astrology or tea-leaf reading."

Former Supervisory Special Agent Dr. Drew C. Richardson, FBI Laboratory Division