Defense Department Working on High-Tech Lie Detectors

An eerie image of a magenta, blue-green and yellow face glows on a screen as a government employee steps behind a heat-sensing camera on this sprawling U.S. Army base. Not far away, researchers are studying lasers' ability to detect muscle contraction. Other technology tracks the movement of a person's eyes.

Liars beware. The Defense Department facility that trains the people who run the government's polygraph machines is looking to an even higher plane of technology in its quest to separate fact from fiction.

"We don't know how far down the road it's going to be, but this is showing some potential," Bill Norris, director of the Defense Academy for Credibility Assessment, said recently as he talked about the thermal-imaging device that measured his face's temperature. "We've started to look at new technologies that can help us in this business."

Besides serving as a hub for high-tech research into futuristic methods of lie detection, the academy is responsible for training all polygraph examiners who work for the U.S. military and 23 federal agencies. It turns out about 100 new examiners yearly and conducts much of the 80 hours of refresher training that each of the government's 650 polygraph examiners must undergo every two years.

Polygraph examiners monitor subjects' blood pressure, respiration rates and sweat gland activity as part of a standardized — and potentially hours long — interview process. It takes new students 14 weeks of training to learn how to conduct polygraph exams and understand the physiological data that underpins the process.

Part of the job uses the base's young soldiers to role-play stealing money from a fake bank. Some go through with it; some don't. The academy's trainees wire the soldiers to sensors and quiz them about their acts during videotaped exercises, with the details of their heartbeats and other physical reactions displayed on wide-screen monitors.

"Our students have to learn to ask the right questions, to see if the soldiers 'did the deed' or not. It's a great exercise," Norris said.

Meanwhile, researchers are testing other devices that would allow lie detection to go wireless.

There's the thermal imaging technology that Norris says is promising given its ability to tie deception to temperature changes in the skin. Another studies the pattern of an individual's gaze to see how the eye looks at a familiar or an unfamiliar scene.

"This is something that law enforcement might be able to use, say if you showed someone a picture of a crime scene," to see if they recognized it or not, Norris said.

Researchers are also studying what they call "Laser Doppler vibrometry," which looks at changes in the body's muscle contractions, respiration or cardiovascular activity. With it, a laser could be directed at an artery in a subject's neck to study blood flow from afar, said Debra Krikorian, a molecular biologist working with the institute.

"Can you imagine the potential? You could have a stress test and not be hooked up to all those wires," Krikorian said.