There were a couple of interesting IT-related snafus, errors, and problems last week. We start off this week’s edition of IT Hiccups with a popular polygraph system that may well have incorrectly identified thousands of people as being economical with the truth when they actually weren’t.
Lafayette LX4000 Polygraph System Accused of Minimizing “Technical Glitch” for Years
The McClatchy publishing company ran a series of disturbing stories in its papers over the weekend about a polygraph system called the Lafayette Instrument LX4000, which is widely used by U.S. state, local and federal law enforcement agencies, as well as the military and intelligence agencies. The articles note that the polygraph has had a long-standing “technical glitch” that may have incorrectly shown people as being untruthful when they were not.
According to McClatchy, one agency that extensively uses the LX4000 system to screen applicants is the Federal Bureau of Investigation. General policy at the FBI (and many other government agencies) is to disqualify job applicants who fail their polygraph. However, McClatchy writes, “polygraphers have documented problems with the measurement of sweat by the LX4000” when the machine is used in automated mode. The problem dates back nearly a decade, during which time the LX4000 has been used by the FBI and other government agencies to assess the truthfulness of tens of thousands of people.
McClatchy explains that: “Scientists have experimented for more than a century with running a minuscule amount of electricity through sweat glands in the fingertips as a way to gauge emotions and mental effort. In the past two decades, however, polygraphs marketed to government agencies have changed the way perspiration is measured…As a result, the LX4000 measures sweat in two ways. One method, known as the manual mode, directly measures the secretions from sweat glands, as scientists traditionally have done. The other, known as the automatic mode, electronically filters the measurements and is designed to smooth out the sometimes erratic graphic representations and make them easier to interpret.”
However, polygraphers using the LX4000 noticed years ago that the measurements of sweat could vary widely between the machine’s manual and automatic modes—which could change the outcome of a polygraph test, the story says. Lafayette was notified by polygraphers at the Air Force’s Office of Special Investigations in 2002, the LX4000's first year on the market, that there was something wrong with the results generated when the machine was in “automatic” mode. On receiving the news, the company apparently told the Air Force that the LX4000 should only be used in manual mode; however, for some unexplained reason, the company did not bother to inform other customers of the problem. Indeed, a training manual from the time still told customers to use the automatic mode.
In 2005, polygraphers at the Defense Intelligence Agency also noticed the sweat reading discrepancies and told Lafayette about what they were experiencing. The company told the DIA that it would fix what it believed to be “minor” problem, but seemingly never offered the DIA the advice it had given the Air Force—to steer clear of the LX4000's automatic mode.
Four years and several software updates later, the DIA was concerned that the problem still had not been fixed. This was even after Lafayette told the agency that the problem was fixable and the company had “devoted [its] entire engineering efforts” to solving it. Meanwhile, the company seemingly continued to avoid publicizing to most of its customers that the problem even existed.
Lafayette had hoped to sidestep its sins of omission by introducing a new model, the LX5000. No sweat problem, right? Wrong. The LX5000 has the same sweat measurement discrepancy issue in automatic mode that dogged its predecessor, McClatchy says.
When McClatchy started investigating the issue, Lafayette apparently decided that it had better try to get ahead of the story. McClatchy states that, “Lafayette sent a notice to customers in March acknowledging that a difference in measurements could occur but described it as a ‘rare’ phenomenon that it had attempted to eliminate with improvements to its machines.”
When McClatchy reporters asked Lafayette why it hadn’t sent out the notice years earlier, the company replied that it wouldn’t be “productive” to discuss the question. The story is worth a read just to see the company ducking and dodging reporters’ questions. Just as interesting is seeing U.S. government organizations that have used the LX4000 bob and weave to avoid taking shots about the possibility that they falsely accused people of lying, and as a result, denied them job opportunities—or worse, got them fired.
It's bad enough that polygraphs are used at all, given all we know about their lack of reliability, especially for security screening. But for Lafayette to ratchet up the level of risk by keeping information about a known flaw under wraps shows a total disregard for its responsibility to anything but its quarterly earnings. Even more irresponsible were the government agencies that knew about the flaw but continued to use the LX4000 in automatic mode anyway.
All this makes me wonder whether Lafayette polygraph machines were used at this past weekend’s Winni Landlocked Salmon and Lake Trout Derby on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire. According to the rules, the winner of the Grand Prize Salmon Division must agree submit to a polygraph before any prizes will be awarded.
Marks & Spencer Customers: Beware Stores' New Contactless Payment System
There was a BBC News story last week about customers of Marks and Spencer (M&S), the major U.K. retailer, discovering that they are paying multiple times for their store purchases because of the new contactless payment terminals M&S has rolled out in 644 of its stores.
The BBC says that contactless payment cards “are supposed to be within about 4cm of the front of the contactless terminal to work.” However, some of the terminals apparently have a longer range than that—up to 40 cm—and are taking payments from credit and debit cards inside purses and wallets without the customers knowing it.
Marks and Spencer's contactless payment system is provided by VISA Europe, which says it will be investigating the “extremely unusual” incidents.
Trying to Make Lemonade Out of Electronic Voting Machines Lemons
In January 2010, Elections Systems & Software of Omaha, Nebraska, won a bid to supply New York City 6500 electronic voting machines at a cost of U.S. $52 million. However, in their first use in September 2010, a significant number of the new machines malfunctioned. The problems created polling place chaos and massive voting delays across the city. Mayor Michael Bloomberg termed the situation “a royal screw-up” that shouldn’t have happened, the New York Times reported at the time.
Bloomberg apparently hasn’t warmed up to the electronic voting machines since then, especially after revelations that the machines were prone to “over-voting.” Last week, he called for a return to the old lever machines because of concern over what might happen in the upcoming 10 September primaries for mayor, comptroller, and public advocate.
According to a story at the New York Post, New York state law requires that a runoff election has to be held within two weeks “for each contest in which the leading candidate doesn’t get at least 40 percent of the vote,” which recent polls indicate likely will occur in mayor’s race given that there are five candidates (so far) running for mayor. However, the Elections Systems & Software voting machines apparently require more than two weeks to be prepared to handle a new election.
Elections Systems & Software told the New York Daily News that the two week schedule could in fact be met; all New York City had to do was show it the money.
Needless to say, the company’s offer of help hasn’t exactly been received warmly by NYC officials.
Mayor Bloomberg is trying to get the state to grant it more time if there is need for a run-off election.
Also of Interest…
Robert N. Charette is a Contributing Editor to IEEE Spectrum and an acknowledged international authority on information technology and systems risk management. A self-described “risk ecologist,” he is interested in the intersections of business, political, technological, and societal risks. Charette is an award-winning author of multiple books and numerous articles on the subjects of risk management, project and program management, innovation, and entrepreneurship. A Life Senior Member of the IEEE, Charette was a recipient of the IEEE Computer Society’s Golden Core Award in 2008.