LONDON, May 7, 2008 -- 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.
CATHERINE: (She looks at him and looks away.) If I were guilty, and if I wanted to beat that machine, it wouldn't be tiring. It wouldn't be tiring at all.
NICK: Why not?
CATHERINE: Because I'm a professional liar. I spend most of my waking hours dwelling on my lies. For my writing."
That may be easy for a psychopathic killer, even in real life, but what about ordinary people? The British government is counting on Voice Risk Analysis to catch thousands of ordinary welfare cheaters. Here's how they will try to do it. At the beginning of each telephone call, the characteristics of a welfare recipient's voice frequency are sampled by asking basic personal details, such as name, address and date of birth, to establish a benchmark.
Those benchmarks are used during the conversation as a guide for analyzing changes in frequency caused by changes in emotions, and flags any discrepancies from the base stress level. When a caller is under pressure, if they are exaggerating or lying, for example, the frequency of their voice changes and the voice analysis can detect these inaudible fluctuations.
Trained operators can then decide whether a call is high or low risk and what further action to take. Officials say that initial results from the pilots have shown that the risk-ratings made using the technology have succeeded. Of the cases rated as high risk, an estimated 30 percent identified a change that wouldn't have otherwise been discovered.
The developers of Voice Risk Analysis, DigiLog, claim that many insurers have been using the system since 2002 and have seen improvements in their fraud identification rates -- with one insurer claiming to have saved more than $20 million from the processing of 19,000 automobile claims. In 2004, Halifax General Insurance said it would continue to use the technology after finding up to 12 percent of its claims were potentially fraudulent.
There has been some strong reaction when it comes to shifting the technology to welfare recipients. A left-wing Labor Party member of parliament, John McDonnell, said he was "appalled" at renewed attacks on benefit claimants: "No one condones fraud, but people have a right to claim benefits that they have paid their taxes to fund without being treated like criminals."
"Why aren't we applying lie detector technology to those who are really ripping off the system -- the city elite who cost the Treasury up to $300 billion in tax avoidance?"
Similarly, said an unnamed spokesman for the Child Poverty Action Group said, "Major concerns were expressed by disability and welfare rights organizations that this technology is unproven, stigmatizing and could put off legitimate but vulnerable claimants from accessing welfare rights."
Brendan Barber, general secretary of Britain's trade unions, told ABC News: "Cheats can be accomplished liars who fool the system, while the scrupulously honest but nervous can fail. The danger is that the genuinely needy then have to wait while their claims are assessed or become so frightened they withdraw their application. Meanwhile, real fraud goes undetected because the cheats passed an unreliable test."
But for the opponents, they may want to recall Jack Nicholson's lines from "A Few Good Men."
Jack Nicholson: "You want the truth?"
Tom Cruise: "I think we deserve the truth."
Jack Nicholson: "YOU CAN'T HANDLE THE TRUTH."