Truth about polygraph testsWritten by Datuk Seri Akhbar Satar
Polygraph tests determine whether or not a person is lying. The tests can also be used to clear the name of a person wrongly accused.
A polygraph is an instrument that simultaneously measures changes in a person’s physiological reactions, such as his blood pressure, heartbeat, respiration and electric resistance (galvanic skin response) when he is asked questions. The tests aim to show whether or not he is telling the truth.
According to the American Polygraph Association (APA), over 250 studies have been conducted on the accuracy of polygraph testing over the past 25 years. Recent research also revealed that the accuracy of the new computerised polygraph system is close to 98 per cent when examined by qualified examiners (especially APA members) who use validated techniques. In other words, it is very accurate. It clearly shows that it is not just a simple test but a serious test that can be applied to the private and public sectors.
A polygraph test is usually done in three phases. In the first phase, an examinee is informed of his rights, and he signs a consent form if he agrees to it. The examiner then discusses with the examinee specific issues which are the subject matter of the questions that will be asked during the test. Once both parties agree, the questions are formulated. The examiner will also assess the subject’s emotional and physiological suitability for the test.
In the second phase, the polygraph instrument is connected to the computer, while several wires are connected to various parts of the subject’s body, including fingers, chest and arm. The examiner administers at least three separate tests, each lasting less than five minutes where a subject’s physiological data or responses are recorded onto the polygraph charts as the subject answers a set of questions reviewed earlier during the pre-test. Based on psycho-physiological principle, when the examinee hears a question which he or she intends to answer untruthfully, the brain interprets and triggers automatic and uncontrollable physiological changes reflected by the polygraph.
In the final phase, the examiner will conduct a diagnostic analysis, evaluate all charts collected during the tests and from this evaluation the examiner will determine whether the examinee is telling the truth. The examiner can also find the results inconclusive.
It is impossible to cheat in polygraph tests conducted by certified examiners. Even so, the instrument is not truly a lie detector. The polygraph instrument produces only graphs. The polygraph examiners are the lie detectors and they determine whether the person is deceptive or truthful.
Since it was invented in 1921 by John Larson, the polygraph technique has proven to be one of the most powerful, robust and useful scientific tools in criminal investigations, pre-employment screening, counter-intelligence, counter-espionage, counter-terrorism, combating fraud and corruption.
Polygraph is widely used in more than 80 countries, such as the United States, Israel and even Singapore as it is regarded as the best choice, rated highest in terms of widespread use by government as well as the private sector to detect lies and for security reasons. There are many qualified polygraph examiners in Singapore.
Polygraph use has also proven successful in eliminating suspects, proving innocence, testing informers, complainants, witnesses, suspects, narrowing the focus of enquiry, gathering information and evidence.
All agencies like the CIA, FBI, National Security Agency, US Secret Service and the US Department of Defence and the majority of US police departments use polygraph tests in investigations and screening or for preclearance of their staff and contractors.
There is no precedence or court ruling on the admissibility of polygraph evidence in most of these countries, including Malaysia and Singapore. In Japan, India and Indonesia, polygraph evidence is admissible in court. In the US, most states permit polygraph test results to be used as evidence. In New Mexico, polygraph evidence is admitted in the same way as other scientific evidence.
In Malaysia, polygraph has been used by law enforcement agencies with success to determine who was involved in the Lahad Datu incursion, Islamic State and many other serious crimes.
The tests are also used by insurance companies to detect customers who are involved in falsifying insurance claims, especially for luxury vehicles (sold the cars but reported stolen), for internal inquiry or recruiting staff. In the insurance claim cases, the results of polygraph test are admissible in the civil court in Kuala Lumpur. The technology has prevented millions of ringgit in fraudulent motor insurance claims. According to General Insurance Association of Malaysia, in 2015 the industry paid out RM5.3 billion in motor insurance claims.
One local polygraph examiner has handled no fewer than 5,000 tests both locally and abroad, including for a pharmaceutical company that was losing RM3 million a month. A sustained random polygraph test on employees saw such losses reduced to less than RM100,000 a month.
Recently, there have been suggestions that the test be administered on civil servants as a deterrent to corruption. This followed a spate of arrests of senior government officers by the MACC. The MACC, police, Royal Customs Department, armed forces, Universiti Teknologi Mara and Universiti Sains Malaysia have enough examiners and instruments to assist the government to conduct polygraph tests. They can be used to screen current employees, especially in security-sensitive occupations or posts.
But to ensure and maintain integrity, the tests have to be conducted as spot checks on employees. It is a preventive measure as employees will think twice before committing an offence, knowing that they can, at any time, be made to sit for the test.
If you ask how reliable and trustworthy a polygraph is — the answer: it is better than nothing.
The writer is President of the Malaysia Association of Certified Fraud Examiners
Published in: The New Straits Times, 10 May 2019
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