Barking Dogs and the Republic of Truth

Israel has done it again. Another technological triumph. For a change, I’m less than thrilled, and hoping it’s just a false alarm. You’ll have to make your own judgment on that score. The first thought I had upon reading this was that life really does imitate art.

The heart of Nemesysco's security-oriented technology is a signal-processing engine that is said to use more than 8,000 algorithms each time it analyzes an incoming voice waveform. In this way it detects levels of various emotional states simultaneously from the pitch and speed of the voice.
The law enforcement version achieved about 70 percent accuracy in laboratory trials, according to V Entertainment, and better than 90 percent accuracy against real criminal subjects at a beta test site at the U.S. Air Force's Rome Laboratories.

I was uncomfortably reminded of the novel “Barking Dogs”, a not too bad thriller from about fifteen years ago.

The story is pretty basic. A good cop loses his partner. He comes a little unhinged, as any of us would, and wants some righteous vengeance. He throws the rulebook out. This time it’s personal, and rules are for losers. Now, we’ve all seen this movie before. The new wrinkle lies in these newfangled, foolproof, pocket lie detectors (brand name “Barking Dog”). You can buy one at Radio Shack. With one of these babies, it’s EASY to find out who the bad guys are. Just troll those mean streets for muggers. When one finally makes his move on you, point your gun at him and commence conversing.”Talk or die, creep. And if I don’t like what you say, you’re going to die anyway. Have you ever murdered anyone? Raped anyone? What do you know about that dead cop, three weeks ago? Hurry up, tough guy. Don’t keep the dog waiting.”

Are we really ready for 90% accurate portable lie detectors? I’m hoping that this turns out to be a scam.

However, whether or not this particular device is the genuine article, the signs are pretty clear. Law enforcement is, to put it fairly, interested. I imagine Homeland Security is too. Whatever particular method wins in the marketplace, this general class of device is almost upon us, and probably sooner than we would like. It’s not too early to start worrying. Personally, I had always envisioned it as more of a hulking, immobile, MRI-type machine, deep in the bowels of the Ministry of Truth. Even that would have been bad enough.

I had also envisioned it, chauvinistically, as an American development, ten or twenty years from now. As Seinfeld might say, "What is it, with Israel and technical innovation?"

Everyone has heard how Israel made the desert bloom. Drip feed irrigation was pioneered there. And, of course, they’ve got their own nukes. But a cursory examination of the Sunday supplements shows Israelis
contributing in all manner of other fields, punching way above their weight. A short but diverse list follows.

First up, the incomparable gutcam, from Given Imaging.

Quantum encryption and processing.

Nanoelectronics.

Chip design.

Tissue engineering.

Cloning.

Stem cells.

Optical processors.

Guns that shoot around corners.

The Tel Aviv Love Parade!

They even have an X prize team.

And, of course, flying cars.


All of this, while saddled with a not terribly efficient quasi-socialist economy. True, we give them billions in foreign aid every year, but the same could be said of Egypt. Where are the Egyptian flying cars? Where is the Cairo Love Parade?

Given their degree of technical accomplishment, and the, ahem, particular requirements Israel has for security related interrogation, perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that they were the ones to press ahead with this. I don’t blame them one bit. But, if I were responsible for this particular innovation, a moratorium would sound like a pretty good idea right about now. Not that it would work.

I hope this machine is a fake but I’m operating under no illusions. Something very much like it, portable or not, is clearly just a matter of time. Just how this will play out, for good or ill, will depend to a large extent on initial conditions.

If everything works out JUST RIGHT (a pretty big if) civil liberties in the United States will be preserved and enhanced. Starting from a position of government transparency and conscientious law enforcement, plus strict observance of the fifth amendment, “The Republic of Truth” could end up being a net win for all of us. On the other hand, if everyone else is willing to testify under the machine and you aren’t, your fifth amendment rights begin to look rather flimsy and theoretical. “Why are you not willing to speak plainly, sir? The jury is very curious.” Balance that with easier uncovering of police malfeasance. Is it a wash?

For the citizens of any number of backwater thugocracies, it will be the stuff of pure nightmare. What would a Lavrenti Beria do with a “Truth Machine”? Or the Saudi religious enforcers, the Mutaween? Cloning may not make me shudder, but this stuff certainly does. I suppose a person could console themselves, to a limited extent, by remembering that evil dictators already torture and murder with no questions asked. They don't need fancy electronic gear. They've got pliars.

Paradoxically, a relatively effective lie detector might make intelligence gathering more difficult under certain circumstances. No more moles. Crime families and terrorist cells can clean house on a daily basis. Absolute loyalty and truly airtight security become achievable dreams, unless the machines can be spoofed. Then you can worry about false levels of confidence, and the debilitating effect of using the machines as a crutch for “real intelligence work”.

Somebody once remarked that "Life is hard enough, without people inventing things." I wish I could remember who. It's rare, but sometimes I find myself agreeing with them. What to do? Cultivate your garden. Think good thoughts.

You can't unring the bell.

posted by Justin on 08.21.04 at 05:25 PM







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Comments

I would expect these gadgets to be ineffective against pathological liars, religious (or other) fanatics, or others who truly believe (for the moment) what they're saying, or at least don't care whether it's true or not.
Testing on known criminals is one thing, but I suggest that testing on trained actors would be quite another. Actors, after all, are supposed to speak convincingly of things which are true for their characters, but not for themselves personally.
So, we might find the hardcore evildoers (and undercover good guys) going to acting school, or studying mystic Eastern techniques for controlling their emotions to avoid betraying untruths.
Common street thugs aren't likely to get that clever, nor to have the required discipline and/or talent and/or correct variety of controlled insanty.

BTW, the Israeli shoot-around-corners gun is kinda cute, but lacks the bizarre originality of the krummlauf.

Eric Wilner   ·  August 22, 2004 12:45 AM

I'm not surprised that Israel excels in technological innovation, particularly by comparison to such neighbors as it has. The Jewish people have, for at least the last 2000 years, excelled in nearly every field way disproportionate to their numbers. They really _are_ a Chosen People.

Excellent! Your meticulous research and documentation is a credit to the blogosphere and I'm all too happy to see it here.

If I could add a thought (a worry, actually), it's that today's Lavrenti Berias seem to be running the insurance industry....

Eric Scheie   ·  August 23, 2004 10:05 AM

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