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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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  • Re:Polygraph (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Mashiki ( 184564 ) <> on Sunday June 13, 2010 @05:39PM (#32559030) Homepage

    There's a reason why in Canada they're not considered an instrument reliable for court. But the RCMP use it for hiring you. Yep just gonna go over here...

  • by Darkness404 ( 1287218 ) on Sunday June 13, 2010 @05:41PM (#32559042)
    According to the NSA we have no rights, confessions are best gotten by torture, oh and we are attacked by terrorists every 4.8 seconds if we would close illegal prisons and give all US citizens basic rights and conform to various international treaties.
  • by Robadob ( 1800074 ) on Sunday June 13, 2010 @05:43PM (#32559062)
    I posted about that earlier in response to this when it had no comments, but my comment has gone walkies. I do not understand how slashdot works.
  • by wiredlogic ( 135348 ) on Sunday June 13, 2010 @05:44PM (#32559066)

    Polygraphs aren't lie detectors. They are used to assess truthfulness. Much of the magic is not in the machinery itself but in subjecting the person under assessment to unfamiliar, semi-stressful conditions while asking probing questions. It's basically a game of manipulation for the polygrapher.

  • by Mike Buddha ( 10734 ) on Sunday June 13, 2010 @05:49PM (#32559102)

    It's easy to fake a polygraph test when the stakes are low. Its much more difficult when your job or freedom are on the line. Not impossible, but certainly much more difficult than what Penn and Teller did.

  • by moxley ( 895517 ) on Sunday June 13, 2010 @05:54PM (#32559124)

    How about "The Truth About the NSA - According to the Polygraph."

      It would be a much better article.

  • by AliasMarlowe ( 1042386 ) on Sunday June 13, 2010 @05:55PM (#32559134) 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.

    I guess you refer to one of these: [] [] []

  • by moxley ( 895517 ) on Sunday June 13, 2010 @05:56PM (#32559140)

    Well, as they say: "you don't beat the polygraph - you beat the polygraph examiner.

    As others have also pointed out on this thread, the higher the stakes, the more likely you are to have autonomic responses.

    I think if you practice with a machine, you can probably pull it off, but it's going to be harder with someone who REALLY understands how to use one....

    One thing that does help in almost all circumstances (as I understand it) is a dose of Benzodiazepines.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday June 13, 2010 @06:07PM (#32559192)

    So its just like a Scientology body thetan test machine?

  • Re:Polygraph (Score:5, Insightful)

    by iYk6 ( 1425255 ) on Sunday June 13, 2010 @06:08PM (#32559200)

    It's the same situation down here, too. Police forces and various government offices use polygraphs while hiring. It makes sense, really. They want to make sure that you can lie convincingly. I'm not really sure the purpose of putting sociopaths in power, though.

  • by Barrinmw ( 1791848 ) on Sunday June 13, 2010 @06:10PM (#32559222)
    There is a big difference between Absolute Truth and Personal Truth. Polygraphs detect Personal Truth. If you purposefully say something you believe to be untrue, there are generally certain biological responses made throughout your body and that is what the polygraph picks up.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday June 13, 2010 @06:14PM (#32559246)

    This is usually why control questions are asked.

    Of course, that isn't really enough since you can ask your average person a question and they'd answer it without even understanding the question itself.
    Without prior knowledge of whatever topic is being questioned, people can train their brain in to thinking certain things ARE truth. (or might think it is truth due to the people they hang around with saying that it was the truth)

    For example, someone so obsessed with killing "for the sake of the species" could well get off pretty easily because they think they are doing the species a favor.
    Terminating the lives of those "worthless" people is a victimless crime to them since they (the now-dead) wouldn't have done anything for the human race in the long run, whereas the killers are helping the race by limiting human numbers, no matter how small.
    At this point, even your average murderer is pretty useless in that sense since births, globally, are REALLY bloody high... the only way you could really beat birth rates now would be on the rate of huge acts of terrorism-based attacks, every day.
    Same goes with countless other things, whether it is rape, murder, fraud, and so on.

    Unfortunately, ignorance of law is no excuse, and innocent people get fucked over by this every day.
    They always say that phrase, despite the fact that there is absolutely NO basic law course in primary education for most countries.
    Hell, even in most secondary and tertiary education courses, they don't even touch on the legal side of things, such as software development, no legal stuff in there, nothing about copyright, IP, trademarks, just nothing.
    I remember seeing a woman on the news the other day who was being questioned over something, was then told it was fraud and was absolutely shocked.
    Most people have absolutely no idea in the slightest as to WHAT fraud is! Other than the fact that it is related to money and cheating systems. But most don't even know that some of the things they might be doing IS cheating systems, mainly due to the fact that is it so simple to do!
    We live in one hell of a screwed up society.
    Sorry, went off in a bit of a tangent there, but still...

  • Re:Polygraph (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Ethanol-fueled ( 1125189 ) * on Sunday June 13, 2010 @06:20PM (#32559300) Homepage Journal

    They want to make sure that you can lie convincingly...

    Or that you actually were a good boy, so you'd be more likely to obey whatever daddy NSA tells you to do.

  • Re:Polygraph (Score:3, Insightful)

    by gmhowell ( 26755 ) <> on Sunday June 13, 2010 @06:23PM (#32559316) Homepage Journal

    I'm not really sure the purpose of putting sociopaths in power, though.

    Like begets like.

  • Re:Polygraph (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Kitkoan ( 1719118 ) on Sunday June 13, 2010 @06:26PM (#32559332)

    Or that you actually were a good boy, so you'd be more likely to obey whatever daddy NSA tells you to do.

    Oh come on, everyone knows that the NSA means No Such Agency. [] Its just a figment of your imagination...

  • Missed the point. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by scaryjohn ( 120394 ) <> on Sunday June 13, 2010 @06:26PM (#32559336) Homepage Journal

    The response largely misses the NSA video's point: If you think you're a good fit for the NSA, the polygraph shouldn't stop you from applying for a job.

    It's crap science, but the NSA can erect whatever arbitrary hoops it wants for employees. Any fool watching the NSA video for insight into other uses of polygraphs does so at great peril. The response is most informative when he says, "This is true of NSA employment practice, but . . ." Seriously, someone with a principled objection to the NSA polygraphing prospective employees, is going to have a real eye-opener on his first day of work there.

    Accusing the NSA of intellectual dishonesty is as useful as accusing water of being wet. Polygraphic prospective hires doesn't have to catch anybody to serve a purpose. It's enough to drive the pissant commie sympathizers to bother someone else. Or maybe not. []

  • by martin-boundary ( 547041 ) on Sunday June 13, 2010 @06:31PM (#32559344)
    In other words, they just pretend it works so they don't lose their make-believe work as a polygraph tester...
  • Re:Polygraph (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday June 13, 2010 @06:41PM (#32559408)

    Someone not cooperating with a search (however ineffective the search is -- the polygraph is 100% ineffective at giving more info on truth versus falsity, it can only be correlated to what is already known, which is useless) does not tell you anything specific about why. It only tells you that they are not cooperating with a search.

    Polygraphs are like drug dogs. They are used to provide a facade (meaning fake) probable cause for a search and/or seizure. Corrupted courts and government agents then go along with the facade. They are happy to allow these fake tools, since then whatever the police choose to say is then what is. In other words, authority reaffirms itself. No need for that pesky reality to intervene.

  • by elucido ( 870205 ) on Sunday June 13, 2010 @06:57PM (#32559494)

    The polygraph is an outdated technology which can be easily fooled.

  • by AK Marc ( 707885 ) on Sunday June 13, 2010 @06:57PM (#32559496)
    Considering the 13th Amendment, I'd say that the order in question, whether in force or not, is quite irrelevant at this point. Also, since the first of the orders in question is in regards to the Confederate States of America, I'd say that it was no longer in force in 1865, when the Confederate States of America ceased to exist. Though technically, the first didn't actually do anything except state the intention to issue the second.
  • by bjourne ( 1034822 ) on Sunday June 13, 2010 @07:29PM (#32559714) Homepage Journal
    So just down 20 cups of coffee before taking the test. When you yourself are caffeine speeded, shivering in cold sweat and not able to tell up from down, the machine will have a very difficult job assessing your truthfulness.
  • Re:Polygraph (Score:5, Insightful)

    by hardburn ( 141468 ) <hardburn.wumpus-cave@net> on Sunday June 13, 2010 @07:41PM (#32559780)

    Except it's actually so bad for their intended use that it's a hindrance to their job, not a help.

    Let's say you have a test for a virus that is 99% accurate, but 1% of the time, it gives a false positive (says someone has the virus, but doesn't). Let's also say that there are 1000 people that might be infected, but nobody is sure. All of them are tested, and on average, 10 of them will show up as false positives. That number can probably be delt with, perhaps with a more expensive (but more accurate) test, or maybe the treatment is no big deal (so they can just get an injection and go on).

    OTOH, let's say that 1 million people might be infected. Test all of them and there ends up being 10,000 false positives. Now the costs of the more accurate test start rising. Perhaps the treatment is more dangerous or expensive (rabies shots used to be pretty nasty, for example), so you really don't want to use it on people who aren't really sick.

    So your accuracy rates need to be in line with how many people are going to be screened. If its use is highly targeted, then a test that's 90% accurate might be OK. If it's more of a general screening, then it needs to go into the five-9's kind of accuracy, perhaps more.

    Polygraphs are nowhere near 90% accurate. It's maybe 70% accurate, and has both false positives and false negatives. For general job screening, like the NSA is using it for here, that's nowhere near good enough. It might be good enough for police investigations as a way of seeing if they're on the right track, but there's a reason it's not considered admissible court evidence in the US.

    Of course, all this is only focusing on the basic statistical issues. There's a whole other set of arguments surrounding privacy, which matter even if a future technology is 99.999% accurate.

  • Re:Polygraph (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Peach Rings ( 1782482 ) on Sunday June 13, 2010 @07:55PM (#32559862) Homepage

    if they refuse|agree to take a polygraph they're probably guilty|innocent

    I would refuse to take a polygraph test under any circumstances. Therefore, my cooperation has no correlation with my guilt or innocence.

    By the way, why would I refuse to take such a test? Simple. It cannot help you in any way. They can take the things you say in the test and use them against you in court, but no matter how flawlessly you pass the test, as a defendant you cannot call on any of that testimony in the court room. Only the prosecution can call testimony from police interviews. So basically, it can hurt you, but it legally cannot help you at all.

  • Re:Polygraph (Score:5, Insightful)

    by sumdumass ( 711423 ) on Sunday June 13, 2010 @08:00PM (#32559892) Journal

    Not really. I'm neither guilty nor innocent, I'm not even connected to a crime and I will refuse to take a polygraph test if ever asked- for any reason.

    It's the same when a cop pulls you over and asks to search the car or something. I always default to no you may not. They usually reply with something about something to hide and I reply that if they knew that, they wouldn't need my permission to nibshit through my stuff. I then ask if I'm free to go. Of course they will not find anything if they look, but I'm more worried about them finding something that wasn't there before they looked. If they are honest, then it won't be a problem. If they are not honest, then it's a door to escape the issues at their hand.

    It might be a different story is there was some trust surrounding the officers enforcing the laws, but a fe bad apples spoiled that a long time ago and continue to keep it rancid today. The problem is that you cannot tell which are the good cops and which are the bad cops and it's best to just not take chances. Especially when they want to search you or pin something on you that you had nothing to do with.

  • Re:Polygraph (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Peach Rings ( 1782482 ) on Sunday June 13, 2010 @08:06PM (#32559922) Homepage

    Is that supposed to be a valid defense? A test which has apparently been universally decried as enormously inaccurate is being used to deny people employment. And like the guy said in the video, if you fail for applying to the NSA then you might not be able to gain employment for other government agencies because they keep the result on file.

    Man I would totally fail a polygraph test. Look at this [], it happens all the time. I bet if I were put into a one on one interrogation for an hour I would say whatever they wanted even though I was innocent. In the video when the interviewer was watching the lady closely and asked "Have you ever participated in espionage against the United States" a chill went down my spine. False positive!

  • Polygraphs are used as interrogation tools. The subject believes that they work and the polygrapher CAN see changes that can indicate that the person under scrutiny is having an issue with something. It's not a true false stoplight but it gives them an indication that something is on the subject's mind and they pursue it. At that point it's a guided interrogation with the polygrapher using indications from the machine to try and figure out if there's subterfuge going on. If the subject is able to provide reasonable explanation for the readings and what goes through their mind when queried then a good polygrapher will let it go. If they see enough of this kind of reading or they just get a hinky feeling they will make the subject come back for another reading until they feel like they have gotten the truth.

    Used properly by someone who has a clue and who is trained to look at more than just the silly screen or stylus, someone who can listen to the timber of the voice or other tells the process (not the machine) can work. Someone who is a pathological liar isn't going to get caught. Neither is a person who has a change of heart after the process which is why the process is done on a regular basis by places that care about keeping their employees "clean".

    There ARE downsides. Some people have medical issues that provide goofy readings be it heart or sweat or breathing. Sometimes people are SO stressed out by the magic machine that they freak out and cannot give a good reading one way or the other. Some people are just guilty - about every freaking thing in the world! These kinds of folks aren't going to pass the testing easily, in fact they may never be able to pass and then I guess the employer has to make a judgement call. This is simply risk management and if you're Joe Blow secretary tough luck - you're toast! Oh, some drugs will screw with the machine too apparently so if you take those for whatever reason it's going to be weird, not sure what they do then. But if you're a normal well adjusted person and understand what's going on the test is not that big a deal.

    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.. The silly stuff you see on TV where they ask you long rambling questions that require something other than a yes or no - that's bullshit and done wrong. Any employer that wants you to undergo something like that isn't using a service that's worth a shit and it's not going to work out. Run don't walk from those - it's crap and they will pull who knows what out of their ass.

  • Re:Polygraph (Score:3, Insightful)

    by hardburn ( 141468 ) <hardburn.wumpus-cave@net> on Sunday June 13, 2010 @09:36PM (#32560380)

    The rest of my comment lays out the logical basis for that statement. Citations are for underling facts, not reasonable conclusions from those facts.

    If you want a citation for a specific fact, I can turn some up.

  • by mr.andreas ( 1824046 ) on Sunday June 13, 2010 @09:44PM (#32560416)
    The question I have is WHY the NSA feel they need to publish this video in the first place? Why do they feel it necessary to make the public feel good about polygraphs? What are their ulterior plans, wholesale warrant-less polygraphs?
  • by meerling ( 1487879 ) on Sunday June 13, 2010 @10:15PM (#32560590)
    A lie is the intentional statement of knowingly false information.
    The polygraph detects stress responses, not lies.
    If you were hooked up to a polygraph and someone asked if you bought milk the last time you were at the grocery store, that's unlikely to get much of a response.
    On the other hand, let's say your favorite pet just died, and they asked you if you killed your recently deceased pet. You would have a big response, even if you aren't responsible. You'll probably be responding because of the grief and bad memories of your favorite critter dying. You might even be responding to the audacity and rudeness of that questioning scum even daring to ask such a stupid question. The polygraph doesn't know and doesn't care, it just measures the biological stress reactions.
    The determination of whether it is a lie or not is solely in the hands of the examiner, in other words, it's a technology that tells someone (who may have an agenda or massive bias) that you are reacting. Does he decide you're upset by the question, or that you're an animal abuse scuzzbag? Well, if they've hauled you in for questioning and wire you up to a polygraph, what do you think the answer is?
  • Re:Polygraph (Score:5, Insightful)

    by stewbacca ( 1033764 ) on Sunday June 13, 2010 @10:17PM (#32560600)

    Don't talk to the police if you are innocent or guilty and without a lawyer...good advice.

    Don't take a poly from the agency you'd like to work for? Terrible advice.

  • Re:Polygraph (Score:5, Insightful)

    by nbauman ( 624611 ) on Sunday June 13, 2010 @11:19PM (#32560908) Homepage Journal

    If you want to work for the agency, you don't have any choice. Go ahead.

    But as documented, many of the organizations that give you a polygraph make get it wrong, make false accusations, and reject applicants because of false positives. The operators are even under an incentive to reject people, even falsely. Once you get rejected from one agency for failing a lie detector test, you're blackballed from others. had a story like that about a guy who applied to a police department in Texas. The examiner accused him of lying, the police department rejected him, and he couldn't do anything about it.

    The other thing I would point out was that the NSC in the video required its employees or applicants to sign a statement that their test was "voluntary." That was a lie. It was coerced. If you didn't take the test, you wouldn't get the job.

    One of the most annoying things about the procedure is that the whole thing is full of deception and unfairness. They even force you to lie.

    You can make your own decision. I wouldn't work for an organization like that. It's not what I'm after in life. What can they offer? You can work in places that are honest.

  • Re:Polygraph (Score:5, Insightful)

    by snowgirl ( 978879 ) on Monday June 14, 2010 @01:21AM (#32561406) Journal

    Don't take a poly from the agency you'd like to work for? Terrible advice.

    At risk of sounding like one of those asshole girls, "if they would discriminate against me, then I don't want to work for them" (because fundamentally, I have a right to)


    Refusing to take a poly from anyone is the best choice you can make. Once you consent to the examination, there are two possibilities: you either pass and they believe you (neutral result compared to your position before) or you fail and they dismiss you (a result worse than you started at).

    Refuse ALL polygraph tests, there is no empirical evidence to support them, and you should absolutely object to any of them that are offered. If the entity requesting the poly then declines to hire you, then you are better off, than if you consent and they fail you on the poly.

  • by Maestro4k ( 707634 ) on Monday June 14, 2010 @01:29AM (#32561436) Journal

    #2. Are there other situations which would yield the same results? The answer is - yes. Having a stress reaction to a question (even if you're telling the truth) will produce the same results as lying.

    Notably, being falsely accused of a crime can be enough to cause a stress reaction on questions about the crime, simply because the person's scared half to death from the accusation and/or investigation. So the sheer fact that you've been accused of a crime can be enough to make you fail a polygraph trying to prove your innocence, thus bringing more suspicion against you.

    Never, ever, take a polygraph as part of a police investigation. At best you'll have wasted time, at worst you'll make them even more convinced you're guilty even if you're totally innocent.

  • by Lanczos ( 1786578 ) on Monday June 14, 2010 @01:41AM (#32561464)

    It is absolutely that bad. I took the test for a job at the NSA. I had nothing to hide. I am/was the most straightedge person on the planet.

    I was strapped to the machine for 3.5 hours while they asked me the same 6 questions at least 8-12 times. Every time they told me that I was flunking the question regarding "falsifying information on my NSA security forms." I falsified nothing.
    Once they detect a problem they shift from Mr. nice we'll have you in and out in five minutes guy to an actual interrogator. He left me alone in the room to sweat it out for 20 minutes. He kept going back to different things on my forms trying to catch me in a lie. He gave me all the lines about how he was just trying to help playing the ridiculous good cop/bad cop game with a guy who just wanted to do some interesting math not blow up the country.

    I wasn't lying about anything by I was treated like a criminal. It was honestly one of the worst experiences of my life. I never found out if I passed or not as I ended up working at a DOE lab. If they had told me that I had to come back to try again I would have withdrawn my application. I wasn't lying the first time, why would the results be any different the second. And with the dogs sniffing in my car and the insane psych exam the whole culture seemed toxic and paranoid. I work at an NW lab now and IT has looser security than the NSA interview site has.

    The machine does not work, end of story. And any propaganda video that tells you the polygraph is a painless procedure is a complete load of crap. A friend of mine later had a similar experience so I know it wasn't just me.

  • by ClosedSource ( 238333 ) on Monday June 14, 2010 @03:12AM (#32561920)

    The fact that the "stakes are high" doesn't justify a technique that doesn't work. There are much less expensive techniques that also don't work (e.g. a coin toss) if the government feels it must do something.

  • Re:Polygraph (Score:5, Insightful)

    by jcr ( 53032 ) <> on Monday June 14, 2010 @03:15AM (#32561942) Journal

    Don't take a poly from the agency you'd like to work for? Terrible advice.

    Work for an agency that can't tell quackery from science? Terrible idea.


  • Re:Polygraph (Score:3, Insightful)

    by snowgirl ( 978879 ) on Monday June 14, 2010 @06:12AM (#32562728) Journal

    No. Placing yourself at risk of a false positive of a lie detector is not worth offsetting being flagged as uncooperative.

    If you're worried about this, then point directly to the Green River Killer and point out that he passed a polygraph as well as numerous spies in the USA.

    Then ask them why anyone being dishonest would want to point out that passing a lie detector test could still be lying.

    State unconditionally your willingness to engage in prescreening interviews that do not violate your rights.

    If they are a private organization, then state emphatically that they need to reconsider their position on polygraphs, because they have likely already rejected the best employee they ever could have had... no, not you... the hypothetical guy whom they rejected because he happened to have a false positive.

  • by Wh15per ( 1526101 ) on Monday June 14, 2010 @04:25PM (#32570152)
    The true tragedy here is not the NSA's video, but rather AntiPolygraph. I am by no fan of the polygraph, but geez.... AntiPolygraph could have done better with something other then taking the NSA ad, replaying it, and inserting about 2 minutes worth of "The NSA is lying!" commentary. They could have made a much better arguement. Like the polygraph or not, everything in the NSA video -was- true and is how a polygraph works... it may not be all rainbows and unicorns, but they didn't lie about the process. :)
  • Re:Polygraph (Score:4, Insightful)

    by snowgirl ( 978879 ) on Monday June 14, 2010 @06:21PM (#32571960) Journal

    You are right as to what it indicates. And parent poster was right as to the implications of that indication. If you cannot control your physiological reactions to different stress inputs, you're probably not the type they are looking for. Source of the stress is irrelevant.

    I disagree that this "ability to control your physiological reactions" is relevant.

    This is done as a screening process for national security secrets.

    I am not mistaking terms. The tool is ineffective due to far too high rate of a false positive and false negative.

    The polygraph is not given to gauge one's ability to control physiological responses in response to emotion, it is given to gauge a person's honesty while answering questions.

    If a polygraph were used under different circumstances where its results were meaningful, then the tool would be effective, however:

    The Polygraph is absolutely and unequivocally INEFFECTIVE at determining honesty.

"Never face facts; if you do, you'll never get up in the morning." -- Marlo Thomas