Ever have a hunch you were being lied to? The Israeli makers of "Truster" software say now you can see whether your perception is on the mark - as your computer sizes up the person on the other end of the line.
If you believe the people at Makh-Shevet, a small high-tech company here whose name roughly translates to both "well thought" and "computer," anyone equipped with a CD-ROM and a computer sound card may soon be able to operate a lie-detector test on a home or office computer using a standard telephone.
Using a new method that measures "microtremors" in the voice, the $150-a-pop program would be not just more affordable - but also more accurate and accessible than a traditional polygraph exam, its inventors claim.
There has already been a great deal of press about Truster, a "Personal Truth Verifier," in Japan and Germany - where it is soon to be available. The English-language version just released last week is awaiting a distribution agreement in the US.
By the end of the year, the company expects to have the software translated into 25 different languages - potentially turning the global economy into a society so driven by technological voice analysis that people may be anxious to rely on less vulnerable forms of communication, like old-fashioned e-mail.
That, at least, is what is happening with many of Tamir Segal's clients, who have been calling him less often, he says.
"Everyone's sending me e-mail now because they don't want to talk," jokes Mr. Segal, Makh-Shevet's CEO, in his office in this Tel Aviv suburb. "People will be afraid to do business on the phone again."
But Segal, a computer-game buff, says this didn't start out as a venture to get people to test the good word of those dearest to them - clearly a dicey game.
Its real impetus was much more serious: counterterrorism. Over dinner about a year ago, a friend of the family mentioned the concept to Segal. Amir Leiberman, a young computer prodigy now employed by Segal, had started formulating the idea while watching the news after a suicide bomber killed four Israeli women at a Tel Aviv cafe last March.
"I was newly married, and I thought, 'What if something like this will happen to my wife?' " says Mr. Leiberman, who hadworked at a private security firm. "I knew that if I had something like Truster, I could ask people at the border if they are planning to do something in Israel."
Applications and obstacles
The idea was to make what would primarily be a tool for preventing crime and terrorism - and solving cases after the fact, too. The company is still working on a version - with relevant new hardware - for checkpoints and airport security.
A microphone worn on the officer's shirt would pick up the traveler's voice for analysis on a tiny computer attached to the officer's belt, with results being relayed to the officer by a discreet earphone. A more sophisticated version of the software will be reserved for military use.
But the concept of using Truster as an investigative business tool took off even more quickly. For example, Truster is expected to be especially attractive to credit-card companies, which reportedly lose a lot of money to people who spend a large sum on their credit cards, then declare them stolen.
Segal thinks Truster will be in hot demand by insurance companies who suspect that their clients are exaggerating the amount of goods stolen in a burglary - and would find the new lie detector much less expensive than sending out a inspector on every case.
Other businesses are forging ahead, too. Segal says one Tel Aviv company is planning to look at about 500 applicants for about 100 new job openings next month. Rather than bringing them all in for preliminary interviews, the firm will use Truster as a preselection device - comparatively less timely and less expensive. But in the US, such a test might be deemed illegal because it could easily discriminate against minorities with accents.
Segal says that there are other products on the market that claim to test truthfulness, but none of them can test in "real time," providing the user with findings as the conversation takes place. Truster also detects subtle shades of untruth, which its proponents say is a big advantage.
Messages on the computer - which makes various graphs and profiles of the speaker - include "surprise," "false statement," "inaccuracy," "avoidance/voice manipulation," "excitement" - and of course, "truth." Red and green lights distinguish between levels of untruth. Five reds means a lie is probably being told.
Concerns about ethics
Polygraphs are used during criminal investigations in Israel, but the results are not allowed to be used in court, according to Shlomo Bruck, a polygraph expert who is serving as a research consultant to Mach-Shevet.
Mr. Bruck is head of Uran Polygraph, a private polygraph firm in Tel Aviv, and former head of the polygraph division of the national police in Israel.
He says that five years ago, the use of a polygraph test for preemployment purposes was banned in the US - though it is unclear whether Truster will fall into the same category of law.
Even if Truster makes its way past any potential legal barriers, ethical issues are sure to make some people shudder at the idea of a lie detector on every desktop.
Truster's inventors compare their findings to hearsay evidence: useful, but not gospel.
"This is the computer. This is the society that we've decided to live with," Segal says. "The technology is here. It's up to everyone to decide how to use it. I use it as a decision-support tool, not as a decision tool."
Here in Israel, where 2,200 copies have been swept up during their first week on the market, several intelligence agencies and research institutions are reported to be trying Truster. The inventors themselves are still having a bit of fun with it, too.
Running the program on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu while he gave a recent television interview, software developer Leiberman says he learned two things - Mr. Netanyahu means it when he says he loves his wife, but doesn't believe his own statements about making peace with the Palestinians.
Is It Legal? Entering Uncharted Waters
HOST of issues could mean tough legal obstacles ahead for the Truster lie-detection software in a number of countries.
In Israel, for example, it is not illegal for anyone to record a phone call without the other person's knowledge, a requirement for most phone recording in the US. But there are stricter privacy laws here - based on the French and not the American model - that protect details about a citizen's private life from being used for any purpose other than that for which they were provided.
"I can see a problem if you are doing a test on someone through the line," Haim Klugman, the director general of the Israel Bar Association, says in a phone interview. "If you're doing this test to me now, this will be an interference in my privacy.
"We will try to look into it," says Mr. Klugman, who is also the chairman of the Public Council on Privacy.
Moreover, it is unclear how stiff US regulations on phone recording and wiretapping will treat Truster. Since it works by measuring the live, on-line voice, and not by recording, Truster might create a whole new area of law and regulation.
Makh-Shevet suggests that users and distributors seek legal advice before using the software. "Everybody is doing legal research to see if it's possible to use it in their own countries," says Tamir Segal, the company's CEO.