(This post is from our new blog: Unofficial Sources.)
“The pores tell the story.”
That, at least, was the hope behind a short-lived Army experiment that aspired to analyze the human face for signs of stress and deception during interrogations.
RED-FLAG — the interminable acronym stands for Remote Electrodermal Detection-FLIR (Forward Looking Infrared) As Guide — was a plan to use thermal cameras to watch skin pores in order to gauge “the physiological stress response of a person during questioning without contact.”
A 2009 slideshow presentation on the program, obtained by The Intercept, shows thermal photos of foreheads, fingers, and noses in “relaxed” and “upset” conditions, recalling before-and-after photos in a low-budget acne treatment infomercial. The thermal camera can pick up the opening of pores, which can be linked to signs of stress — and deception — according to the Army’s research.
The unclassified presentation claims that a “statistical correlation between pore count” and measures of nervous system activity has been “established definitively.” Tracking pore activity would help evaluate a source’s credibility or build better rapport with them, the slideshow promises.
Even better from the military’s viewpoint: Unlike a regular lie detector, where a subject is hooked up to sensors, RED-FLAG wouldn’t require the subject’s consent, or even knowledge. The device could be hidden from sight.
“A scientific breakthrough,” the presentation said. “This changes everything.”
The Army is not alone in its dream of finding a way to deduce deception from these kinds of physical signs. Sigmund Freud once wrote that it was easy to believe that “no mortal can keep a secret. If his lips are silent, he chatters with his fingertips; betrayal oozes out of him at every pore.”
As The Intercept has reported, the idea of looking for hidden signs of deception has already taken hold at the Transportation Security Administration, which screens passengers for would-be terrorists using a host of supposedly suspicious behaviors that include whistling, sweaty palms and looking down.
A number of similar ideas have been floated across government. Customs and Border Protection tried installing kiosks at the U.S.-Mexico border that ask questions of travelers and watch their facial cues to refer them for further screening, and the military has put out proposals for sweat detectors and funded software called JEDI MIND that analyzes one person’s responses in order to evaluate the trustworthiness of their partner. A 2012 roundup of technologies from the Pentagon’s Combating Terrorism Technical Support Office noted that a contractor was developing a “head mounted credibility assessment,” which would evaluate pupils, skin moisture and heartbeat. Algorithms in an attached computer tablet would provide “real-time determination of credibility of the interviewee.”
The problem with all these ideas, however, is that none of them have fully passed scientific muster. The scientific community has long questioned the validity of even the traditional polygraph, and other methods involving “behavior detection” have also been challenged.
An analysis of scientific literature conducted as part of an evaluation of the TSA’s behavior detection program by the Government Accountability Office “found that the human ability to accurately identify deceptive behavior based on behavioral indicators is the same as or slightly better than chance.”
Yet the Army seemed enthusiastic about its plan. A patent for the setup filed in 2009 says that the aim was “to develop a system which could utilize the principles of a polygraph, or ‘lie detector,’ but would be remote and not require physical contact with the person to be tested.” A drawing shows how the equipment could be hidden in another room to watch the pores of unsuspecting subjects.
The technology was “ready for real bad guys,” but just needed “help with funding sources,” the slideshow presentation promised.
Apparently not so much. RED-FLAG never made it out of the development stage, according to a Kashia Simmons, a spokesperson for the Army’s Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center. He did not elaborate why the program was scrapped.
A private company, EIOR technologies, received a grant for nearly $100,000 from a different Pentagon office in 2012, to build on RED-FLAG and develop a hand-held system to “accurately determine truthfulness/creditability of subjects undergoing questioning,” using not just pore count, but also “breathing rate and microfacial expressions.” That project wasn’t funded after the initial research phase either, said Simmons. (EOIR did not respond to interview requests.)