Facing up to deception

Lie-detection technology could be used in UK police interview rooms for the first time this summer.

While polygraph tests regularly feature in police investigations in the US, the police here have never used lie-detection equipment. But researchers at Manchester Metropolitan and Liverpool universities are now talking to several police forces in the northwest about testing their facial-recognition system, Silent Talker, in real interviews.

Liverpool psychology professor Ian Donald said that the team had received a great deal of police interest in the device, which is based on a video camera linked to an artificial intelligence system.

‘We are talking to very senior people informally,’ said Donald. ‘Possible police forces [to take part in the pilot] are Cheshire, Greater Manchester or Merseyside. We are going to contact the Association of Chief Police Officers and our aim is to trial this in real interviews.’

Donald has applied to the EPSRC for funding for the project, which is sure to prove controversial. Such technology has previously been used by probation officers on convicted sex offenders in the UK.

The system’s use in interviews during the pilot project would have to be with the consent of suspects and their solicitor. For any results to be used in court, a change in the law would be needed.

Donald said he would not want Silent Talker to to be the sole basis of a prosecution. ‘I’d be worried if they convicted someone on this basis,’ he said.

The device has a 90 per cent success rate in detecting deceitful answers from a series of responses, said Dr Janet Rothwell, psych-ology researcher at Manchester Metropolitan University, who spent five years developing the system. The polygraph is believed to have a 60-70 per cent success rate, but the US National Academy of Sciences has questioned its ability to achieve even this level.

‘The artificial intelligence system watches for micro-gestures, blushing and head and shoulder movement,’ said Rothwell. ‘At a basic level it is trained to identify an object, such as an eye. The next level is to understand if that object is being deformed, for example an eye changing shape.’

The Association of Chief Police Officers refused to comment on the project. But a spokesman for the Police Information and Technology Organisation, which oversees law- enforcement biometrics research, said it was monitoring the work.

Mark Littlewood, campaigns director for the human rights organisation Liberty, said the prospect of the devices being used in interviews was alarming, particularly if suspects were filmed without their knowledge. ‘The full consent of the suspect should be required. We are sceptical of its reliability and believe its more widespread use would be a serious and unacceptable erosion of the right to silence.’

The US government is also believed to be interested in Silent Talker. The biometrics division of US R&D think-tank RAND recently contacted the research team on behalf of an ‘unnamed US government agency’, according to the science attache of the UK’s Washington embassy, but RAND denied the claim. US polygraph maker the Lafayette Instrument Company also plans to visit the researchers in May.