Last September, Chad Dixon was sentenced to 8 months in a federal prison for teaching clients counter-measures for polygraph tests. Federal prosecutors charged Dixon with obstructing justice—they view his business as undermining an important tool used to check the credibility of government employees and prosecute criminals.
The information Dixon was selling wasn’t new. Books on beating polygraphs have been around since the machines were invented. So why is the federal government cracking down now?
In an effort to stop the next Edward Snowden, officials are emphasizing polygraphs’ ability to prevent leaks by keeping employees honest. The NSA has recently gone from polygraphing its employees once every five years to four times a year.
Relying on polygraphs is extremely risky according to most scientists. “There is no unique physiological signature that is associated with lying,” says Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists. Polygraphs can only record physiological responses to situations and, Aftergood explains, you can train yourself to control those responses: "You can learn to regulate your heartbeat, you can learn to control your breath, and you can generate spurious signals.”
Supporters of polygraphs believe that up-to-date machines and well-trained operators can detect lies, making the counter-measures Dixon was teaching obsolete. “We’re trained in all those type of counter-measures,” says Darryl DeBow of the Virginia Polygraph School. “They are so antiquated, we know when they are doing it.” Yet if the counter-measures can easily be detected, it throws doubt on the argument that Dixon was hindering the federal government’s work.
Produced by Joshua Swain. Shot by Swain and Amanda Winkler. Narrated by Todd Krainin.
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