Lie detector technology, whatever you may think of its accuracy or the ethics of its use, has just taken another step toward becoming a routine crime-fighting tool. In Britain, for instance, Voice Risk Analysis technology is the latest attempt by local authorities to thwart welfare fraud.
Government officials say they believe that about 10,000 fraudsters could be caught, and past success using voice analysis to counter insurance industry fraud appears to support that claim.
"As the first local authority to use the voice risk analysis technology, we are very pleased that it has been such a success -- saving the taxpayer more than 400,000 pounds [more than $780,000] during the past year in Harrow alone and receiving an overwhelmingly positive response from claimants," Fergus Sheppard, spokesman for the London borough of Harrow, told ABC News.
The technology analyzes changes in voice frequency and performs thousands of mathematical calculations, identifying different categories of emotional content. The answers are recorded as electronic wave forms into a computer where special software gauges whether the person is as honest as the heroic movie character Forest Gump, or as evil and conniving as Superman's nemesis Lex Luther.
Voice analysis is different from the traditional lie detector, which works by measuring and recording several physiological variables, such as heartbeat, blood pressure, breathing and skin conductivity. The use of those polygraphs peaked in the United States in the 1980s, when government agencies administered more than 20,000 tests -- mostly on suspected criminals, but also on job applicants.
More recently, the FBI asked U.S. senators to take lie detector tests as part of a probe into leaks of classified 9/11 information. But in most European countries, polygraphs are considered unreliable and are not generally used by police.
Lie detectors have always been a staple of Hollywood, where their influence was as broad as the imagination would allow. In the film "Meet the Parents," for instance, the audience reacts with laughter, perhaps nervously, when Ben Stiller's character Greg is summoned to his father-in-law-to-be's basement, where Robert De Niro's prying ex-CIA agent Jack Byrnes is waiting with a lie detector machine.
"Jack Byrnes: Relax. Relax. The needles are jumping. Have you ever watched pornographic videos?
Greg: No. I mean, well, I don't ...
Jack Byrnes: Yes or no?"
Greg is saved by the entrance of his fiancée, and the audience breathes a sigh of relief.
Is that because everyone lies, at least sometimes? Is it because of deep resentment toward a machine that might be able to intervene in the time-honored human art of navigating around the truth in order to avoid collisions that could harm us or others? Or is it that people have developed a schizophrenic attitude toward lie detectors?
On the one hand, the machines may very well help protect people from terrorists and other criminals. On the other hand, while amateurs might fail a lie test, the fear is that a clever villain might be able to fool the detector.
In "Basic Instinct," for instance, we all remember that Sharon Stone's femme fatal Catherine Tramell not only lied to detectives, she also passed a polygraph. Afterward, driving through a rainstorm, she talked to Michael Douglas' detective Nick Curran:
"CATHERINE: (smiles) I'm tired.
NICK: It's got to be tiring to beat that machine.