polygraph tests and free speech

A polygraph (“lie detector”) test is one that measures signs of autonomic nervous system arousal, such as increased heart beat, respiration, and skin conductance. Basically, it measures stress, the kind of thing that can happen anytime you’re forced to take a polygraph test and asked questions whose answers might lead you to be fired, accused, or imprisoned for something.

Based on last reading, the success rate is approximately 60%. Not bad, but imperfect; and much rests on the experience and professionalism of the polygraph examiner.

Critics (or perhaps opportunists) of polygraphs have been disseminating material on how to fool the polygraph, such as by modifying one’s breathing, doing cognitively distracting things like math in one’s head, etc. I don’t know if these techniques work. Regardless, the teaching of such techniques is enough to attract attention of federal authorities.

One guy caught in a sting might get up to 25 years in prison. He has four kids.

“The emotional and financial burden has been staggering,” Dixon said. “Never in my wildest dreams did I somehow imagine I was committing a crime.”

The best approach to promulgating this information might be to release details of the techniques publicly and without profit motive. The problem with the aforementioned former polygraph examiner is that he was hired by his “customers” (undercover officers) who (ostensibly) told him their supposed wrongdoings; i.e., he agreed to help people evade justice, which is a crime (for valid reason).

It makes sense to charge someone who knowingly assists others in avoiding punishment.

Having said that, I do not agree that disseminating the information in and of itself should constitute a crime. The concluding paragraph sums that argument up nicely:

“The criminalization of the imparting of information sets a pernicious precedent,” he said. “It is fundamentally wrong, and bad public policy, for the government to resort to entrapment to silence speech that it does not approve of.”

The backdrop of all this is that, very likely, various government agencies will be doing a lot more with the polygraph due to recent “insider threats” such as Snowden and other whistleblowers. For that to be effective, information on how to circumvent the polygraph will be curtailed, and violators will be punished severely to dissuade others.

The witch hunt within the NSA and other agencies will probably backfire. Lower morale, suspicion of your closest co-workers, fear that your co-workers (or that office jerk with an ax to grind) will falsely accuse you, fear of an unreliable polygraph test result … organizations with these characteristics don’t flourish and don’t get the best and brightest to work for them. Companies that trust their employees and support them win loyalty and dedication. Government agencies will lose any such loyalty, except perhaps by a small segment of deluded patriots and a much larger set of pseudo-loyal obsequious drones.

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