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The Truth About the Polygraph, According To the NSA 452

An anonymous reader writes "The NSA (the secretive intelligence agency that brought you wholesale warrantless wiretapping) has produced a public relations video about its polygraph screening program titled 'The Truth About the Polygraph.' But is the NSA telling the truth? provides a critique (video)."
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The Truth About the Polygraph, According To the NSA

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  • Complete Bullshit (Score:5, Informative)

    by taustin ( 171655 ) on Sunday June 13, 2010 @05:40PM (#32559036) Homepage Journal

    Penn & Teller taught a random woman who answered a Craig's List ad how to fake a polygraph response in less than 30 minutes.

  • by DarkOx ( 621550 ) on Sunday June 13, 2010 @05:43PM (#32559056) Journal

    You do realize that even polygraph supports don't claim its truth detector right? The polygraph can at best detect the physiological changes that happen when a person is fabricating a response. If you really think the truth is however you answer that question as far as the polygraph is concerned you are being truthful, so I am not sure I understand what the point of your proposed exercise would be.

  • Re:Complete Bullshit (Score:2, Informative)

    by wiredlogic ( 135348 ) on Sunday June 13, 2010 @05:47PM (#32559082)

    You're not alone. I've noticed /. dropping my comments in the past few months as well. Sometimes they show up on my personal page but not on the discussion thread.

  • Re:Complete Bullshit (Score:3, Informative)

    by Kitkoan ( 1719118 ) on Sunday June 13, 2010 @06:12PM (#32559234)

    Penn & Teller taught a random woman who answered a Craig's List ad how to fake a polygraph response in less than 30 minutes.

    For those interested, here are the videos of that: Part 1 [] and Part 2./a. []

  • by Martin Blank ( 154261 ) on Sunday June 13, 2010 @06:16PM (#32559274) Homepage Journal

    They expire only if they have an expiration date (which they frequently do). They can be rescinded or modified by the executive orders of future presidents, however. Reagan signed EO 12667, regarding access to presidential records, in 1989. It was revoked by Bush in 2001, and restored by Obama in 2009.

  • by mikewas ( 119762 ) < minus herbivore> on Sunday June 13, 2010 @06:19PM (#32559288) Homepage

    The Emancipation Proclamation was one of Lincoln's Executive Orders. Has it expired?

  • by dissipative_struct ( 312023 ) on Sunday June 13, 2010 @06:24PM (#32559322)

    Not sure how this got a tagged as an NSA video, it's from the DSS. The DSS is the organization responsible for granting security clearances. The process they're describing is the polygraph you take to receive certain security clearances. Anyone who is taking this polygraph has applied for a Top Secret-level security clearance. This process is pretty much the same for anyone applying for these clearances, doesn't matter if they'll be working at the NSA, another three-letter agency, in the armed forces, or for a private defense contractor.

  • Re:WTF? (Score:3, Informative)

    by Martin Blank ( 154261 ) on Sunday June 13, 2010 @06:31PM (#32559348) Homepage Journal

    It's not perfect, though, and they know it, which is why it's only part of the process. There are psychiatrists and other mental health experts as well as investigators who look to dig up anything that could affect the subject's integrity. It's a large and complex process, but the polygraph is generally considered to be the scariest part for first-timers.

    A colleague used to work at the CIA, with Top Secret/SCIF clearance. He's told me a little about the process, including the polygraphs. The examiners there are not like what you see on TV (including what was seen on P&T). They are very good at what they do, and able to surprise the test subject on a variety of topics because no matter how much you think they know, they know more. Furthermore, they do their best (and their best is very good) to put the subject off-kilter. As the testing for employment and higher security clearances is lengthy, they have a great deal of time to work on the subject.

    (He told me that he managed to upset one of the examiners who asked him if he'd ever engaged in incest. Most subjects would probably be offended or puzzled; he was very amused, and ended up laughing so much the examiner had to stop the test because it was affecting the readings.)

    As time goes on, you get used to it, and it becomes routine. But for the first-timers, it can be terrifying.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday June 13, 2010 @06:31PM (#32559350) - the profile photos are not quite so alike (in particular because she is a brunette and the actress in the video has her hair dyed "blonde"). However, I saw the girl in the live video, seen her move and heard her voice and, leaving my pr0n habits aside, the likeness is amazing.

  • Re:What, exactly... (Score:3, Informative)

    by 1729 ( 581437 ) <> on Sunday June 13, 2010 @06:32PM (#32559356) they do with uncooperative respondents? If someone refuses to say anything but "Mickey Mouse" while strapped to their glorified E-meter, would that be seen as an exercise in 5th amendment rights in the States? I mean, if ANYTHING they say about lie detectors is true, then someone's nonverbal responses to questions should be considered "speech," right?

    I don't know of any situation in which you can be forced to submit to a polygraph. However, your security clearance will probably be revoked or denied.

  • by 1729 ( 581437 ) <> on Sunday June 13, 2010 @06:40PM (#32559400)

    Anyone who is taking this polygraph has applied for a Top Secret-level security clearance. This process is pretty much the same for anyone applying for these clearances, doesn't matter if they'll be working at the NSA, another three-letter agency, in the armed forces, or for a private defense contractor.

    The Department of Energy doesn't require polygraphs for Top Secret equivalent clearances. DOE can use polygraphs in some cases, but many DOE scientists have been arguing against mandatory polygraphs. For example: []

  • by Mr. Slippery ( 47854 ) <tms AT infamous DOT net> on Sunday June 13, 2010 @07:04PM (#32559536) Homepage

    The Emancipation Proclamation was one of Lincoln's Executive Orders. Has it expired?

    Since it only applied to "any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States" [], yes, regardless of any question of date. Slavery did not become illegal in the entire U.S. until the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment.

  • Re:Polygraph (Score:5, Informative)

    by nbauman ( 624611 ) on Sunday June 13, 2010 @07:19PM (#32559654) Homepage Journal

    Really, all you need is to convince the person you're investigating that it works ... then if they refuse|agree to take a polygraph they're probably guilty|innocent.

    Actually, as pointed out, it convinces people to submit to an interrogation without a lawyer. Standard interrogation techniques can get you to confess to things (sometimes to things you're not guilty of). They can also collect information that they can use against you in combination with other (mis)information.

    See the Youtube video of a law school class by law professor James Duane []. (Or see [])

    Duane said, don't talk to the police if you're innocent. Don't talk to the police if you're guilty. Don't talk to the police without a lawyer.

    You can tell the complete truth, and make a true statement that can be used against you to convict you.

    Like: "I never liked the guy."

    Or: "I was in the next town." Then they finds a witness who honestly thinks she saw you near the scene of the crime, and they use that to impeach your credibility.

  • by dwheeler ( 321049 ) on Sunday June 13, 2010 @07:45PM (#32559798) Homepage Journal
    The emancipation proclamation was actually two executive orders, one in 1862 and a follow-on one in 1863. As executive orders, the emancipation proclamation could indeed have been rescinded by a later president. However, on December 6, 1865, the 13th amendment was adopted, forbidding slavery in a way that a future executive order can't undo. Of course, the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday June 13, 2010 @08:21PM (#32560012)

    I've taken the NSA polygraph. It's really not that bad. It's not like they're using it to "catch you" in a lie. In fact, they give you plenty of opportunities to "correct yourself" if you're caught in a lie. They know its stressful and do they're best to make you feel as comfortable as you can in that situation. The questions are very general, which actually threw me off a little. I could dream up a scenario that I've committed a major crime and now known about it.... so... am I 100% sure I haven't committed one... well... no!

    The test givers are good... really good. They'll know within the first 5 minutes of test questions if you're gonna be a good bs-er or not. They don't pull any of these "tricks" that you all are talking about anyway. It's a relatively comfortable room, there is only one person there. The person is very nice, and if you're having trouble with a questions, they'll stop, they'll get you to talk your way through it, ask you what part you're having trouble with, and help you try to pass. If you're the kind of person that can pass one of these easily while lying... well... you're not likely to be the kind of person that's going to enjoy working at the NSA anyway.

    By far, the worst part of an interview at a place like that is NOT the polygraph. You have to meet with a psychologist. They ask you every single personal question you can think of. It's a bit unnerving to have a total stranger ask you questions like that.

  • by westlake ( 615356 ) on Sunday June 13, 2010 @08:23PM (#32560030)

    The Emancipation Proclamation was one of Lincoln's Executive Orders. Has it expired?


    The Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 only affected states then in rebellion against the United States. Wherever the Union armies marched from then on, slavery would die.

    The Proclamation exempted border states like Kentucky which did not join the Confederacy, cities like New Orleans which had fallen early in the war, and the 48 counties of western Virgina which would form the state of West Virgina.

    The formal end to slavery came with the Thirteenth Amendment, adopted in December 1865.

  • Re:WTF? (Score:3, Informative)

    by Martin Blank ( 154261 ) on Sunday June 13, 2010 @08:25PM (#32560040) Homepage Journal

    No, the machine isn't just a prop. Their questions are guided by indications from the machine. Come up as probably truthful not only based on what the machine shows, but also the tone and timbre of your voice, the way your eyes move, how questions are phrased... They have a whole gamut. You could be in good shape on all but the machine, but if the machine shows something questionable, they may well head further down that path.

  • by commodore64_love ( 1445365 ) on Sunday June 13, 2010 @08:42PM (#32560136) Journal

    Penn & Teller did an episode about Lie Detectors, and included an interview with a former FBI (CIA?) interrogator. He said the lie detector is a farce and easy to fool. It's real purpose is to act as the "bad cop" to scare the criminal, while the person asking questions is the "good cop" just trying to save you from yourself.

    It's all psychological, not mechanical. LINK - []

  • by Wannarunmore ( 1779572 ) on Sunday June 13, 2010 @09:05PM (#32560254)
    At one job, many years ago, I was forced to take a polygraph (or lose my job). According to the investigator running the show, I lied (or seemed evasive) about a couple of serious questions, which I did not; I told the complete truth to every question, having nothing to hide. Specifically, I was asked if I had / or knew of anyone else who had stolen expensive items from the store (which I hadn't & had no knowledge of anyone else doing so). Very shortly after that I was fired for 'messing up' inventory, along with about 1/3 of the work staff. Interestingly, this was right after the busy Christmas season had ended. It's clear to me that they are totally unreliable as truth detectors. Sociopaths can pass them easily no matter what (terrible things) they have done.
  • by chronosan ( 1109639 ) on Sunday June 13, 2010 @09:34PM (#32560370)
    Tighten that sphincter.
  • by stewbacca ( 1033764 ) on Sunday June 13, 2010 @10:27PM (#32560644)

    Anyone who is taking this polygraph has applied for a Top Secret-level security clearance.

    This isn't exactly true. I've held a Top Secret clearance for nearly two decades now and have never taken a poly.

  • by stewbacca ( 1033764 ) on Sunday June 13, 2010 @10:31PM (#32560670)

    I see there's a lot of misinformation on slahsdot, as usual when it comes to security issues. I've was in the Army for 12 years, and have continued to work as a contractor for 7 more and have never been "required" to take the poly.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday June 13, 2010 @11:50PM (#32561036)

    Frankly places like the NSA are using these things correctly from what I'm told - devices to get employees to talk about things that concern them from a security standpoint, skeletons in the closet, etc..

    As someone who's taken the NSA CI poly a couple times, this is absolutely true. It's an opportunity to go looking around for security holes in the system in general. It won't find the people who are selling stuff to the Chinese and know how to beat it. It will find innocent people who know the guy who is selling stuff to the Chinese that have noticed him not following correct procedures.

    Failing the polygraph at the NSA is not the end of the world. Tyically you'll just get a do-over unil you pass. I know a guy who went through it 4 times and was still ultimately approved.

  • by George Maschke ( 699175 ) on Monday June 14, 2010 @12:24AM (#32561168) Homepage
    Actually, it's not a DSS video, although it is made available on their website. The DSS's own security videos indicate the Defense Security Service's name: [] You'll notice that the NSA video includes no mention of the agency that produced it. But the polygraph examiners shown on the video are NSA personnel.
  • Re:I failed one.. (Score:5, Informative)

    by Kirijini ( 214824 ) <> on Monday June 14, 2010 @12:28AM (#32561182)

    When I was 19 I worked at a pawn shop. After working there for 6-8 months something (I don't know what) happened and everyone was lined up from 3 stores for polygraphs. We were let know in no uncertain terms we would lose our jobs if we failed.

    When was this? If this happened after 1988, it was very likely illegal under the The Employee Polygraph Protection Act of 1988. []

    Commercial businesses may not polygraph their employees on a generalized suspicion that someone did something. They may polygraph an employee if they have a "reasonable" suspicion that that employee did certain illegal things, like theft or embezzlement. Even in those situations, employers must follow specific, strict rules - the employee must be given the opportunity to review all questions in advance, consult with an attorney, and not must not be asked questions about things like his political beliefs, associations with unions, etc. Most importantly, the results of the test may not be used as the sole basis for disciplining/firing an employee - there must be independent corroborating evidence.

    And that's just the federal law on polygraphs. Alabama, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont, Washington, and Wisconsin all have other, stricter laws regarding polygraph testing by private businesses. Governments, of course, generally do not limit their own use of polygraphs in such ways.

  • by Moof123 ( 1292134 ) on Monday June 14, 2010 @01:13AM (#32561378)

    It is one part of a process, and if you focus on the polygraph machine itself you'll miss out on the very intentional steps taken to get you to overreact if you lie. Basically the machine is half prop, and most of what is going on is a manipulation to get you to respond in a such a manner that the operator can feel some confidence in the the wiggles coming out of the POS.

    I was not impressed, and put very little faith in their outcome, positive or negative.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday June 14, 2010 @01:26AM (#32561422)

    I took one at Fort Meade 8 years ago. And I can say this video is full of bullshit and PR lies. Don't believe it--they want to catch you with your pants down in a fucked up belief that it makes the test more accurate.

    1) My results were propagated. That tidbit leaked through a FOIA request. Not comfortable revealing even as A/C who my results were leaked to.
    2) Polygraphers do ask questions that are not declared in advance. Among them are counterintelligence questions. Are you trying to cheat on this test, have you been trained in defeating this test, have you met with parties that taught you to defeat...
    3) They do not reveal all questions in advance (see above)
    4) They do change the questions on the fly. Including the speech patterns, orders, etc. Not just "have you ever stole" or "are you hiding anything about..." but "have you ever received stolen..." they change up the word order in slightly tricky ways. Despite the fact that it's yes/no questions, they want you to elucidate if you stumble on an answers.
    5) The forms are irrelevant. The instrumentation and process is an excuse to try to 'get you to relax' so the examiner can befriend you and talk. I'm pretty sure they're all trained as therapists in getting people to about things they normally wouldn't.
    6) The examiners will force you into lying, or try to. This is really frustrating if you're a technically minded individual. They try to trick people into telling 'white lies'--and get very frustrated if they fail or if you ask them outright if they're trying to trick you. Any honest person knows they break the law several times a day--and assumes people don't care. If you're a geek, you may even be aware you probably commit several felonies before you go home from work. If you disclose this, it will not just be noted...but you'll see groans of exasperation. Then they say "other than what you disclosed, is there any..." Bottom line, this can take HOURS to hash out, at which point it gets so complicated it's impossible to answer truthfully. The examiners hate this.
    7) The examiners are hostile. Not directly, but in subtle, strange ways. The room is setup in a confrontational manner. You're lower than them, there's cameras and recording equipment. You can't ask them to stop and clarify in a question run.
    8) The test. Well, I had to go three times. In my case, I was never in a chair for less than three hours and was given shit when I had to use the rest room.

    The lower parts may be subject to personal experience--but they're flat out lying that the questions don't change in the test or that they won't ask you anything unexpected.

  • by jcr ( 53032 ) < .ta. .rcj.> on Monday June 14, 2010 @03:13AM (#32561926) Journal

    Interesting bit of trivia: the polygraph was invented by the same fucking quack [] who came up with the "Wonder Woman" comic book character. (She has a magic lasso that makes people tell the truth.)

    Using a polygraph is a piss-poor substitute for real investigation. Aldritch Ames [] kept passing his polys while he was getting every CIA agent in Russia killed or turned. Because he was passing the polys, they never checked up on basic questions like "Hey, why's this guy rich? He sure isn't making that much on his government salary."


  • by ToasterMonkey ( 467067 ) on Monday June 14, 2010 @03:27AM (#32562000) Homepage

    And that invalidates the previous claim about how a polygraph works.

    If it measures the responses to telling a lie, then it should be able to work no matter what the lie is.

    Therefore, it does NOT accurately measure the responses of telling a lie.

    You guys just do not get it, at all, because you have never had any kind of security clearance interview (poly or not)
    The line of questioning is everything, the machine is just a tool to detect signs of stress the examiner can't already see. The machine doesn't pass/fail you, the examiner does.

    How do you tell if someone is lying? Ask them the same questions different ways, at random points in the interview. Focus on subjects they are nervous about. It can be that fucking simple.
    If you're all really geeks here on /., reverse engineer this, you know, the actual fucking problem poly's are used to solve: How would you tell if somebody is lying to you? If you really cannot imagine a methodology that works better than 50% of the time, punch yourself in the face right now and get off /. If you CAN, and you don't understand how a machine that can indicate signs of stress not visible to the eye is useful in that methodology, why haven't you punched yourself in the face yet?

    This thread has gone full-throttle-retarded. Think people, think. Stop arguing about the presupposed purpose of this machine, and think about the problem. Then go back to what the machine actually IS. Nod your heads and move on.

    Why would you take _my_ word for it? Don't. Think about it your damned self. Internet solved.

  • by L4t3r4lu5 ( 1216702 ) on Monday June 14, 2010 @06:51AM (#32562900)
    It's very likely that you'll be having similar testing done on the same day. maybe even submitting samples for drug testing. Good luck explaining why you have so much caffeine in your system on a day you knew it was important to be free of any chemicals.

    Much better to picture an embarrassing situation, tense a muscle group (toes and buttocks were popular, but now you can be asked to remove your shoes and can be sat on a pressure-sensitive mat to prevent these tricks).
  • Re:Polygraph (Score:3, Informative)

    by Staplerh ( 806722 ) on Monday June 14, 2010 @08:07AM (#32563290) Homepage
    Which was based on David Simon's book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, although anecdotally, so it has some credibility to it.
  • by Paul Jakma ( 2677 ) on Monday June 14, 2010 @08:17AM (#32563340) Homepage Journal

    You're being sarcastic right? Using FMRIs for specific lie-detection is just as useless.

    The only point of polygraphs is that they're a *psychological* interrogation tool, used to induce people into confessing to things by making them think the interrogator actually knows they told a lie. All that matters is that the interrogee believes the test has some effect - the actual technology used is irrelevant.

    No known technology has been proven to have any significant efficacy at detecting lies under scientific conditions. Which is why none of their results are directly admissible in court as evidence (a confession obtained through such a tool would be of course).

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