Saturday, September 26, 2015

ripping the curtain away from the polygraph: nothing there

Doug Williams taught people how to pass a polygraph test. The government wanted him to stop because the government uses polygraph tests as part of their hiring process. What he was doing--teaching--was not illegal, so they had to find another way to stop him.
According to Williams's indictment, two undercover agents asked Williams to teach them how to pass a polygraph test in order to pass a federal background check. 
During the lead up to the classes (and during the classes themselves), both undercover agents repeatedly confessed specifics of imaginary past crimes that they wished to lie about. Because Williams was told about one of the would-be employee's (imaginary) drug smuggling, he was technically assisting a person to defraud the government, according to the indictment.
In 2013, Williams was charged with two counts of mail fraud (he received the undercover agents' payments in the mail) and three counts of witness tampering. Each carried a sentence of 20 years. 
Faced with huge fines and a possible hundred years in prison, he took a plea agreement and will serve two years in federal prison.
[Williams] wants to bring attention to a flawed technology he says has been systematically used to incarcerate and disqualify people from federal jobs. 
"I have no interest in helping criminals escape prosecution or in helping people who are not qualified for a job get it. The more people who understand what the polygraph is capable of doing and is not capable of doing, the more likely it's put into the scrap heap of history," Williams said. "It's worthless technology. It cannot withstand scrutiny." 
In a landmark, 417-page report published in 2002, the National Research Council more or less agreed, suggesting that polygraph testing "rests on weak scientific underpinnings despite nearly a century of study." 
If polygraphs do identify liars based on biometrics, no one would be able to beat the test. Why would the government care if someone were teaching a method that could not work?
"The criminalization of speech advocating for unlawful behavior has been a pretext for suppressing unpopular ideas. It's not a stretch to think that's what's going on here," [Lee Rowland, a First Amendment specialist and senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union] said. "It's clear the government believes the stakes are high here—if [Williams and people like him] are successful, it exposes the fact that these things can be beat, that it's pseudoscience. It's all the more troubling they used undercover agents to create a crime that amounts to nothing more than words alone."
Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. He has a polygraph to run.

I blogged about the use of polygraphs in interrogation theater here and I blogged about how therapists, parole and probation officers team up to use polygraphs here.

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