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


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.

When one portly colleague puffed that he floated across the dance floor like Fred Astaire, Truster responded with a raspberry, flashing "Inaccuracy" in its analysis window. Reluctantly, my colleague 'fessed up - he has two left feet. However, a later cascade of lies about having been to Mars failed to trip Truster's BS detector. Even his offer to sell me the Chesapeake Bay Bridge for $9.95 with a set of Ginsu knives thrown in was accepted as the Gospel.

In fact, Truster itself frequently behaved suspiciously. During more than one test it flopped between pronouncements of "Truth" and "Inaccuracy" seemingly at random. Often its powers of prediction seemed about as reliable as a mood ring.

The instruction manual is also a mess, offering little explanation of the squiggly graphs that appear on screen with mysterious names like "cognitive level indicator." Valencia Entertainment promises a rewritten manual in the next month or so.

One competitor said it's unlikely that someone who hasn't been trained to ask the right questions or interpret the voice stress analyzer's graphs could come up with reliable results.

"The physical reaction has to be interpreted like a doctor would interpret an heart EKG. Stress has a lot of sources, so how it's interpreted is going to make difference," said David Hughes of the National Institute for Truth Verification in West Palm Beach, Fla. "What if the person was thinking about the iron he left on during the test?

Hughes makes the high-end voice stress analyzer employed by Baltimore police.

Used maliciously, or even carelessly, Truster and lie detectors in general offer some scary scenarios. This became clear when I casually asked my bride whether she had ever considered marrying anybody else. She said, "No, silly."

On screen, Truster warned: Don't be so sure.

"Today we carry curiosity to the extreme," said Hughes. "If a spouse does this to another spouse or an employee does it to another employee, they're going to get bad feelings about one another. It's going to affect a relationship."

Truster's creators have been careful to sprinkle the instruction manual with caveats. "Remember," it warns, "this system is an assisting utility, and you must not use its results as a sole tool for making decisions."

And that's the truth.

Information: 877-878-7837 or www.truster.com.

Pub Date: 7/27/98


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