By Catherine Wagley
By Catherine Wagley
By Catherine Wagley
By Wendy Gilmartin
By Jennifer Swann
By Claire de Dobay Rifelj
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Catherine Wagley
|Art by Santiago Uceda|
This program, Truster, doesn't tell you what's on the other side of the end of the universe or give you the answer to "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" But it does claim to be able to sift through the more mundane of life's riddles and set apart those gems of veracity from the standard-issue bullshit.
On the computer screen, Truster looks like the control panel for a game like Doom or Quake. When you first fire it up, the words System Standby glow inside a black box at the top of the screen and a patchwork of lights and graphs sit motionless, waiting obediently to do their job. Click on "Start Test" with your mouse, maneuver your subject near the computer's external microphone (but not in view of the terminal) and begin your interrogation. The screen jumps to life.
Start out interviewing your subject with a few innocuous questions: "How's life?" and "Hot enough for you?" to let the machine get a read on the subject's demeanor. ("Calibrating," the black box informs you as it samples the interviewee's voice and determines his normal speech patterns.) Then the test begins in earnest. A "truth stress graph" traces steadily across the middle of the screen, charting a history of your victim's responses in peaks and dips. Just above, 11 dots light up from green to red at each statement, more green dots signaling more truth, more red revealing lies. And in that black box, after each statement, Truster issues its verdict in bold yellow letters: "False Statement," "Inaccuracy," "Avoidance" and -- once in a while, you hope -- "Truth." The whole time, a band of numbers across the top of the screen constantly quantifies the subject's present volume, excitement, stress and cognitive levels. A spiky sound wave scrolls by, giving a visual rendering of the subject's every word.
"WHO CAN YOU TRUST?" ASKS THE TRUSTER USER guide. Was that car really never wrecked? Was your spouse actually working late last Tuesday? Is the check truly in the mail? If you really need to know, Truster ("Your Personal Truth Verifier") can tell you. Truster is a CVSA, "a computerized voice stress analyzer." Originally developed for an Israeli software company to screen potential terrorists at the Israeli border, it is now sold by Valencia Entertainment to U.S. consumers.
Professional CVSAs have been around for decades, used in place of or in tandem with the polygraph machine by many police forces and government agencies. But you can't bop down to Fry's or CompUSA and pick one up, and unlike Truster, they don't retail for $179.95. Professional CVSAs are run by professionals, interrogators with weeks of training who can decipher the lines and waves and squiggles those units spit out. With Truster all you need is a PC, a phone and a well-developed sense of paranoia. The program does the rest.
Truster works by sensing four distinct sound levels in the human voice, running them through "a highly sophisticated algorithm," and returning a judgment about the veracity of what was said. The theory behind all this is that the human voice produces certain characteristic sound patterns in a normal conversation and very different sound patterns under the stress of telling a lie. These "microtremors," too subtle for the human ear to detect, can only be interpreted by a machine.
But Truster only works if the person you suspect of lying doesn't know he's being tested. That shouldn't pose a problem in a phone interview -- the program comes with an adapter to run your telephone into your computer -- but even with the external microphone, Truster is designed to work only on "a free conversation, with no â predefined purpose," where the need to tell a lie will come as a surprise to the subject. In other words, you must "Truster" your subject behind his back.
Wait a minute, you say, that sounds rather creepy -- in fact, it sounds like it should be illegal. That's what Elizabeth Schroeder says, too. "This is a very frightening intrusion into our privacy," according to Schroeder, the associate director of the Southern California ACLU. "To allow decisions to be made by machines which purport to reveal the truth is Orwellian and very dangerous."
Orwellian and dangerous perhaps. But at the moment, it's not illegal.
PRIVACY LAW IS A FAIRLY MODERN concept. While laws around property and murder have had thousands of years to develop, privacy didn't really become an issue until human beings, clever monkeys that we are, created the tools to invade it. The Fourth Amendment strictly discussed physical search and seizure, because at the time it was drafted, that was the only way to discover information thought to be held private. It wasn't until wiretaps were developed and the telephone had been invented for tapping that the U.S. Supreme Court had to consider the limitations of that language. In Olmstead vs. United States (1928) the court ruled that Olmstead's Fourth Amendment rights had not been violated because wiretaps didn't actually search or seize anything. Six years later, Congress passed the Federal Communications Act, greatly restricting wiretap activities. And this has been the trend in modern privacy law ever since: Technology leaps ahead, and the courts try a case that doesn't fit into the current legislation, Congress enacts new legislation to fit, technology leaps ahead . . .
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