Pentagon Report Assessed Lasers and Radar to Detect 'Deception'

It’s almost impossible to tell when humans are lying and the technology we use to do so is based on pseudoscience and bad research.
March 2, 2021, 6:49pm
Collecting biometric data in Afghanistan
Image: U.S. Air Force photo

America’s cops, soldiers, and border guards would love to know if you’re telling the truth. They spent money training people to detect deception in others as well as technologies that can track eye movements, microexpressions, changes in body temperature, heart rate, and how much a person is sweating. The Pentagon even tried using radar and lasers to detect minute changes in human bodies and facial expressions. 


According to JASON, an independent group of scientists that advised Washington on sensitive issues, most of the science around detecting deceit is bullshit. “Detecting, let alone identifying, intent is simply not feasible today through technology, interview techniques, or coupled interview and technology solutions, even within the same culture,” it said.

In a 2008 JASON study released via the Freedom of Information Act by the Federation of American Scientists, the scientists were clear with Washington about its attempts to accurately detect liars. JASON found that—from lie detectors to radar to heart rate monitors—most of the studies conducted around detecting human deception were inaccurate, poorly conducted and in one case, published without data and retracted. 

“A key finding in this report is the need to establish a discipline of science in the development and deployment of potential technologies, including interrogation methods that have been proposed to be useful in this setting,” it said.

According to JASON, a large part of the problem is that deceitful behavior is overwhelmingly rooted in the cultural context in which it arises. “Each part of the process has complications. The human normal state is highly dependent on culture and context,” it said in the report. “At a minimum, significant training is needed to gain intimate familiarity of new environments, frequently non-Western environments. Virtual worlds and serious computer games, coupled with field training, could be helpful components in the development of a cultural understanding of one’s relevant surroundings.”


JASON stressed that video games and field training could theoretically help but that there’s no scientific evidence it would. Further, it said that the research needs to “use unbiased [emphasis theirs] peer-review for program plans...identifying an anomaly or anomalous behavior within the background is also difficult.”

As part of its report to the Pentagon, JASON analyzed several methods authorities use to detect liars. Authorities and scientists have used the polygraph machine, heart rate and respiration monitoring, thermal imaging, radar, and eye movement tracking in an attempt to detect deception. All have failed. “No compelling evidence yet exists to support remote monitoring of physiological signals in an operational scenario,” it said. “No scientific evidence exists to support the detection or inference of future behavior, including intent.”

JASON moved through each technology in the report and debunked them. “The idea that stress, let alone deceit or fear, can be revealed through thermal imaging is poorly documented in the current literature,” it said. “Few of the papers are in peer-reviewed literature, and almost none of them provide enough information to allow the measurements to be reanalyzed.”

One study published in a high-profile peer-reviewed magazine provided no data of any kind and was retracted months later. “Nevertheless, [the study] is presented in subsequent publications as describing objective testing that validates the use of thermography for revealing stress if not deceit,” JASON said. “That there is no mention of the retraction is only one of many troubling indications of unreliable documentation.”


This report was meant for the Pentagon, but these technological and behavioural monitoring methods don’t just live on the battlefield. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) used a program of behavioral analysis called SPOT for years to detect potential terrorists. According to JASON, it doesn’t work.

SPOT worked like a checklist for TSA agents. If a passenger had sweaty palms, fidgeted too much, or yawned too often, the training told TSA agents to give that passenger extra attention. According to SPOT, the nervous man staring at his own shoes may be a terrorist. “TSA deployed SPOT nationwide without first validating the scientific basis for the program,” a Government Accountability Report on the program said.

When JASON assessed the program in 2008 for this report, it couldn’t find good data about how well the TSA’s program worked. “Data should exist to help understand the rate of false-positive identifications in airports or train stations where these methods are being employed by thousands of screeners,” it said. “Anecdotally, it was found through media reports that in recent airport screenings, 1-2% of the individuals selected for secondary screening through the [TSA’s SPOT] program were arrested.”

Even a few arrests might be considered a success, but JASON pointed out that a lot of those arrests were for drug offenses, not terrorism. Worse the complete lack of data makes the arrest rate meaningless. “Would the outcome have been different if 1-2% of individuals walking about a city in the U.S. were randomly selected for secondary screening?” It said.

When it comes to detecting lies, there’s no good evidence that the techniques and technologies the Pentagon and the DHS are using will work. Radar, lasers, and behavioural training have all failed.