The Congressional Research Service (CRS) in the United States recently issued a report on polygraph testing (lie detectors). Until recently, polygraphs are routinely used to screen current and potential employees for certain government jobs, most notably jobs at nuclear laboratories run by the Department of Energy (DOE).
In 2002, the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) questioned the routine use of polygraphs at the DOE, finding that the tests were unscientific and inaccurate. There have also been many cases where security violators have passed polygraph testing, while innocent people had apparently “failed.” While the polygraph examination may have some utility for deterring security violations, and increasing admissions of guilt, there is little scientific evidence to support the claim that it can be used to detect deception and lies, especially when used for employee screening.
In response, the DOE is now using polygraph testing only for specific cases, such as where there may be intelligence concerns or a specific security incident. However, the new rules do include “random” selection as a specific cause. This new report from the CRS says that this is a step in the right direction, but there is still a need for more research on the accuracy and validity of polygraphs, and for alternative methods. The report also questions whether, in light of the validity concerns and the risk of creating a false sense of security after a passed test, the government really should consider eliminating polygraphs as a screening tool.