By Richard Willing,
Two companies plan to market the first lie-detecting devices that use
magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and say the new tests can spot liars
with 90% accuracy.
No Lie MRI plans to begin offering brain-based lie-detector tests in
Philadelphia in late July or August, says Joel Huizenga, founder of
the San Diego-based start-up. Cephos Corp. of Pepperell, Mass., will
offer a similar service later this year using MRI machines at the
Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, says its
president, Steven Laken.
Both rely in part on recent research funded by the federal government
aimed at producing a foolproof method of detecting deception.
The new devices differ from polygraphs in key ways. The polygraph
detects stress brought on by telling a lie. The MRI-based devices
purport to measure the lie itself, and not changes in breathing and
pulse rate brought on by lying or by some other cause.
"We're at the beginning of a technology that's going to become more
and more mature," Huizenga says. "But right now, we can offer
(customers) a chance to show they are telling the truth with a
scientific basis and a high degree of accuracy. That's something they
haven't been able to get before."
Potential customers: law enforcement, accused persons, spouses under
suspicion and job applicants. Huizenga says a 1988 law that bars
private employers from giving polygraphs to potential employees
appears not to apply to MRI tests.
No Lie MRI plans to charge $30 a minute to use its device. Cephos has
not yet set a price.
The new products are being introduced as the polygraph is under fire.
In 2002, a National Academy of Sciences study concluded that polygraph
results are too unpredictable to be used for security screening at
national labs. Yet the Department of Defense, as well as the FBI, CIA
and National Security Agency, continue to administer thousands of
polygraph tests each year to job candidates and others seeking
The Department of Defense administered about 12,000 tests in 2002, the
most recent year in which it made data public.
"They haven't found anything yet that they think can top (the
polygraph)," says Britton Chance, a University of Pennsylvania
researcher who has studied brain-based lie detection.
Some scientists and privacy advocates criticize the new lie detectors.
They note that they haven't yet proved themselves in real-world tests
and face prolonged scrutiny before they are admitted in court.
"They are going to be deployed to read people's thoughts," says Barry
Steinhardt, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's
technology and liberty project. "Little if any attention has been paid
to potential misuse and the devastating impact it would have on our
The new tests work this way: A subject lies with his head in an MRI
machine and pushes a button to answer yes-no questions as they are
flashed on a screen. The machine measures brain activity, focusing on
areas that are believed to show extra exertion when a lie is
generated. Specially designed software grades the test. The two lie detector companies use similar test techniques, but different software.
Most American courts do not admit polygraph evidence because
differences in examiner skill make it hard to determine accuracy rates.
MRI machines are used by hospitals on a daily basis to diagnose tumors
and other disorders.
After the 9/11 attacks, the FBI, CIA, Department of Defense and other
agencies began funding research into how changes in brain activity
correlate with truth telling.
Daniel Langleben, a physician and professor at the University of
Pennsylvania, and Frank Andrew Kozel, a brain image researcher at the
Medical University of South Carolina, received funding for research
into MRI-based lie detection.
Langleben's research was used by No Lie MRI to help develop its lie
detector. Cephos' lie detector is based in part on Kozel's research.
David Heeger, professor of psychology and neural science at New York
University, opposes using MRI for lie detection until more research is
done. Among the many gaps in the research, he says, is whether a false
or imagined memory will show up as a true response or a lie.
MRI-based lie detection "says changes happen (in the brain of a liar)
but it doesn't say why," says Heeger. "There's a lot more work to be
done ... before we have a deep understanding of what goes on when
Gregg Bloche, a medical doctor and a law professor at Georgetown
University, says scientists, lawyers and ethicists should conduct a
"high profile discussion" of the new technology's potential uses and
pitfalls before it is made available to the public.
The start-up companies say the technology is ready now. Both say they
will focus on winning acceptance in court for tests taken by
customers. No Lie MRI already is working with a defendant in a
California criminal case, Huizenga says.
"We understand that there are further ethics conversations (needed)
when science pushes the envelope," says Cephos' Laken. "But we don't
see these (tests) being set up in dressing rooms and shopping malls.
That's not going to happen."