Liar, liar Can software tell if you're being truthful?

July 27, 1998|By MICHAEL STROH | MICHAEL STROH,SUN STAFF

Wonder Woman wrapped her golden lasso around people to squeeze the truth from them. Police wire suspects to polygraph machines. Now computer users can ferret out the truth with Truster.

Or maybe not.

Truster is a controversial program that purports to turn your PC into a "personal truth verifier" by analyzing the voices of people you talk to in person or over the phone.

Developed by an Israeli company called Makh-Shevet, Truster was designed as a tool for border patrols to prevent terrorists and undesirables from entering the country.

But its savvy creators soon realized that a lot of ordinary folks might like to own a lie detector - if they could only get their hands on one. The machines that professionals use cost as much as $20,000 and require a lot of training to use properly. Truster sells for $150 and runs under Windows 95 or Windows 98.

Just think of the possibilities: Can the guy you've hired to fix your roof really do the job in a week? Was your hubby really out drinking with the boys last night? Did your new hire graduate summa cum laude from Harvard? Does mom really like you the best?

"The applications are endless," said Dean Mauro of Valencia Entertainment International Ltd., the Valencia, Calif., company that owns the North American rights to the software.

Mauro said he's fielded calls from lawyers and private investigators, credit card companies and even a Memphis child abuse center interested in putting Truster to work. Valencia envisions a day when the software might be used as the basis for a TV game show, a sort of "Truth or Consequences" for the Information Age.

The interest in the program is no surprise. The history of mankind's efforts to ferret out lies is as long as Pinocchio's nose and has touched everyone from George Washington (Who did cut down that cherry tree, boy?) to William Jefferson Clinton.

The ancient Chinese forced suspected liars to chew rice powder while being interrogated. They thought lying sparked enough tension to shut down salivary glands. If the rice remained dry, the suspect was prosecuted as a prevaricator.

Medieval Europeans employed an even more low-tech but equally ineffective technique to wring out the truth. A suspected wrongdoer's hand was plunged into a roaring fire. If the hand emerged unscathed, the person was telling the truth.

In modern society, of course, these methods are out of fashion. So law enforcers rely on science and technology.

The most well-known gadget is the polygraph machine. Police wire suspects to these devices, ask them a long list of yes-or-no questions, and then look for subtle, stress-related changes in the person's blood pressure, heart rate, perspiration and other signs.

Truster, on the other hand, is based on voice stress analysis. While this may sound like jargon from the Psychic Network, it describes another technique employed by many law enforcement agencies, including the Baltimore Police Department.

The concept is simple: When a person is trying to cover up something, the lie can trigger subtle, stress-related quivers in the vocal chords. Voice stress analyzers such as Truster look for these fluctuations and try to determine whether they indicate a lie.

Proponents say voice stress analysis offers several advantages over the polygraph. Truster, for example, doesn't require that anyone be wired to anything. In fact, it can screen for lies over the telephone (the package includes a gadget to connect your phone to the PC's sound card). Truster, its publisher claims, can check the veracity of something said on TV by holding a microphone up to the speaker. Imagine: Couch potatoes can find out whether all those Daughters Who Married Their Fathers on Jerry Springer's show are for real.

Truster's makers say they put President Clinton to the test by analyzing the White House press conference in which he uttered the now-famous line, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky."

Truster's analysis: Clinton was telling the truth. Apparently, Ken Starr doesn't have Truster on his PC.

But can Truster be trusted?

Even the law enforcement community debates the merits of polygraph tests and voice stress analysis. For this reason, Federal law prohibits lie detector results from being admitted in court and limits its use in the workplace - a reason to use Truster with care.

Truster's Israeli inventors boast that the program has an accuracy rate of more than 85 percent.

But informal tests conducted on colleagues, friends, and my unsuspecting wife of three weeks showed the program to be less than trustworthy.

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