Still challenged, lie detectors are now used more than ever.

* * * * * * *

T he trouble for Linda Voikos, then 22, a bookkeeper for S. S. Kresge, began when she reported $150 missing from the previous day’s receipts. A few weeks later the store’s security man took her to a room at a local Holiday Inn. There another man with a lie detector tried to elicit a confession from Voikos, first with his equipment and then with persuasion: Linda, you’ve tried to deceive me. You did steal the money. The bookkeeper, a six-year employee, quit before she could be fired. Traumatized by the incident, she spent much of the next two years in a Valium stupor, fought off suicide, and even now, six years later, is afraid to handle the bookkeeping in the doctor’s office she manages.

An overreaction? Perhaps; but last year a Detroit jury found Voikos’ story so convincing that it ordered the discount chain to pay her $100,000. The hefty compensation was unprecedented, but there is growing evidence that Voikos’ ordeal was not. Lie detector tests, either to screen job applicants or to uncover theft by employees, have become big business: hundreds of thousands are given each year, and the number is rising steadily. But despite technical improvements in the new equipment, the accuracy of the results is often open to question, and there are now persistent reports of browbeating by examiners. One super-market clerk in Los Angeles was fired after an emotional response to the question, “Have you ever checked out groceries at a discount to your mother? ” It later turned out that her mother had been dead for five years.

Even in the absence of such excesses, the basic question remains: Is the use of lie detectors an unwarranted invasion of privacy?

The nation’s estimated 3,500 examiners generally claim an accuracy rate of 90% for lie detectors or polygraphs. Critics put the figure much lower. In Part of are an upcoming book , A Tremor in the Blood, University of Minnesota Psychiatry and Psychology Professor David Lykken maintains that the most prevalent test is correct only two-thirds of the time, and, more critically, that it is far more likely to err when the person being tested is truthful. Lykken also argues that polygraph sensors —which monitor changes in breathing, pulse rate, blood pressure and the conductivity of the skin as the subject is asked a series of questions— detect not only the physical arousal that accompanies lying, but also the nervousness that an honest person can feel when strapped to the machine. Several experts say that the equipment, with its straps and wires, constitutes a “modern third degree,” one that may intimidate a subject into blurting out a false confession even before the test begins.

The questions asked in some cases are a brief recap of those on a job application form. In others, they probe the subject’s past, with the emphasis on theft. But sometimes they pry into more personal affairs. Testers reportedly used to ask job applicants at the Coors brewery about their sexual proclivities and how often they changed their underwear According to Mike Tiner of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, queries about political, sexual and union matters are “definitely on the increase.”

Unprincipled or incompetent examiners are to blame for some of these problems, and in fact the uneven quality of the operators is an admitted industry problem. Operators still do not need licenses in half of the states, including New York and California. Says Joseph Buckley, who heads the Chicago office of John F. Reid and Associates, one of the nation’s leading testing firms: “Like an X-ray, a polygraph records data that take a lot of expertise to interpret. In the wrong hands, it’s worse than nothing.”

Nevertheless, many businessmen, particularly banking and retailing executives, have concluded that the benefits of the tests far outweigh the risks. For one thing, they are quicker and more efficient than background checks, and cheaper too ($35 to $150, vs. an average of $300). Meantime, with a recession putting much more pressure on the bottom line, executives feel more vulnerable to quick-fingered workers. The American Polygraph Association claims that as many as three out of four employees handling money and merchandise steal. The total take: $20 billion or more a year.

T he soaring popularity of polygraphs in private industry has somewhat overshadowed controversies about them in law enforcement, although their use in that area is also increasing. Last year the FBI administered 1,900 tests, 800 more than in 1978. Rarely, however, does polygraph evidence find its way into court. Because of doubts about its reliability. most state and federal courts will not admit it, and those that do generally require that both sides agree to its introduction.

The FBI uses polygraphs mostly to probe leads and verify specific facts, areas in which, experts concede, the machines are at their best. The agency also employs highly trained examiners who usually spend half a day on each session (compared with an average of an hour in private industry). Tests given to Jeb Magruder and Gordon Strachan led to evidence of the Watergate cover-up. Right now, Justice Department investigators are using polygraphs extensively in their search for the source of Abscam leaks. Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti has ruled that an “adverse inference” may be drawn if an employee of the FBI or any other part of the Justice Department balks at submitting to the machines.

Whether in criminal or private cases, anyone has the right to refuse a test. Of course, this is hardly a safeguard for someone whose refusal—for whatever reason—may cost him a job. “It’s a good social control policy,” says Jerome Skolnick, director of the University of California’s Center for the Study of Law and Society. “But is it acceptable?” Many businessmen have legitimate reasons for thinking so; but in a society where privacy is so highly prized, it may be a bad trade.

                                                                                  —By Bennett H. Beach


TIME Magazine

SEPTEMBER 8, 1980. (Pg. 44)

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