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I asked in a comment to an answer to the question Security clearance jobs: will security make it hard to get work done? whether real life agencies are as enamoured of the polygraph as their portrayal in modern TV drama series' such as Homeland?

There were a couple of responses suggesting that the use of polygraphs were quite routine, in the US at least.

Given the dubious validity of the polygraph as a lie detection mechanism, I had always assumed that Hollywood played up the role of the polygraph, but now I'm not so sure.

While I was working in the UK defence industry, I certainly never had to take a polygraph, and my only exposure since was a business angel who asked me to set up a website to distribute phone based lie detection software, which I was very dubious about.

So, how routine is the use of lie detector technology in security cleared workplaces, and indeed has anyone seen its use outside of the defence sector?

  • Anecdotally: I've worked for 2 separate defense contractors in the US where I had an active security clearance, and neither required a polygraph exam. I did have co-workers who had the experience though, and they described it as a non-event. – voretaq7 Apr 27 '12 at 17:42
  • I have had 2, one was at a Nuke plant, and the other was financial firm. Neither one of them really asked questions that I felt were off topic or unneccessarily invasive. Though I have heard stories of a friend of a friend too. – IDrinkandIKnowThings Apr 27 '12 at 19:09
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I can speak to the US Department of Defense guidelines for polygraph use.

The polygraph program is detailed in a document from 1985, which was most recently updated in 2011. It specifies, among a number of other things, which types of access require a polygraph investigation. Polygraphs are only used for special access programs, sensitive compartmented information, and by the CIA, DIA, and NSA (sections C1.1.4 and C1.2.2). I'm not sure if numbers exist, but this is probably a relatively small number of people with clearances in the US.

In addition, these guidelines ensure that polygraph results can not be the only reason for rejecting a candidate. This leads me to believe that it is recognized that it isn't the most accurate tool, but that it can provide insight to investigators when looking at people who would be handling information that can, in the wrong hands, be the most damaging to US interests.

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    Good answer, but then I was under the impression that US employment law forbids the use of a polygraph for screening in non governmental entities? I was looking for a source on this but couldn't find it. – maple_shaft Apr 27 '12 at 14:05
  • @maple_shaft Perhaps. I've only worked (and really only want to work) in defense, so the possibility of needing to get a clearance that requires a polygraph has just always been there. I seem to think that you might be correct, but can't find anything. – Thomas Owens Apr 27 '12 at 14:07
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    @maple_shaft - The process to receive a security clearance is the same, if one is required, a polygraph can be used to reject the applicant from recieving one. If a security clearance is required for a job, then the inability of getting said security clearance sort of forces tha hand of said non-governmental employeer. – Ramhound Apr 27 '12 at 14:07
  • @ThomasOwens - "I'm not sure if numbers exist, but this is probably a relatively small number of people with clearances in the US." - Anyone with access to ANY document that has a security clearance beyond a certain level has a security clearance. I am not exactly sure if you are saying there are not a great deal of people with a security clearance of some kind or not because U.S. Government grants thousands of them each year. – Ramhound Apr 27 '12 at 14:45
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    @Ramhound I'm saying that the number of people with access to special programs, SCI, or who work for the CIA, DIA, or NSA are a small subset of people who hold clearances. That small subset is the only subset who has, per DoD policy, undergone a polygraph. – Thomas Owens Apr 27 '12 at 14:50
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In practice, this question is pretty hard to answer from a single person perspective. No single person's experience is likely to cover the spectrum and the actual practice of polygraph usage is generally considered sensitive enough that I would consider most Internet responses worth a grain of salt. I know people for whom work is completely impossible without a polygraph, and I know people who have remained very gainfully employed in interesting, marketable and engaging work in the defense industry without submitting to a polygraph, in fact they've actually been asked and said "no". There are also some variations on what "taking a polygraph" means and they change over the years.

Sorry to be negative. I love @Thomas Owens answer - as he's nailed the actual DOD guidelines for this.

Speaking very, very generally - the use of a polygraph is correlated to the specific agency's determination of the security risk of the information being handled and the security controls that are most appropriate to mitigating that risk. While there is a single agency that handles clearance investigations, they are not the group responsible for deciding risk and the adequacy of security controls - that is handled by the owner of the data and the group responsible for the project that uses the data. (check out NIST standards relating to risk management and security controls)

To make conjectures about which agencies and what types of information or how prevalent this aspect of clearance application is would be a problematic endeavor - particularly on a public forum.

I can say from personal experience, that the ad hoc, free and easy use of a polygraph as seen in crime shows is anything but the truth of how they are actually used. Polygraphs (and any biological based truth detection mechanism) treads very closely to the US cultural norm of protection of privacy from government scrutiny (even when the subject is working for the government) and it's treated very, very cautiously and with a fairly rigorous procedure.

About the best thing to do is to avoid the hype and ask the question when doing the interview. Don't expect that you know based on a previous interview or job experience that the jargon being mentioned raises a standard set of expectations about the background check process.

  • I also love Thomas Owens answer it was very good. I would also agree with your answer. The polygraph has a use, it provides a method to verify, and the science ( if you can call it that ) has of course advanced over the years. The results of a polygraph provide a way to measure, even if if treated cautiously, the truthfulness of an applicants statements. – Ramhound Apr 27 '12 at 15:09
  • @Ramhound It is pretty easy to throw the test with inconclusive results. If you clench the muscles in your butt while answering control questions then the polygraph shows an inordinate amount of stress for the questions used to measure what a truthful response looks like. The butt and other "lower" muscles are important because the interveiwer cannot visually tell that you are doing this. It becomes extraordinarily difficult to tell what is a lie and what is truth in that case thus the test is deemed inconclusive. – maple_shaft Apr 27 '12 at 15:43
  • @maple_shaft - Very true. I have no idea what kind of result "inconclusive" test would result in. – Ramhound Apr 27 '12 at 18:51
  • @Ramhound Probably one or more retests. I do think for security clearance they range on the side of caution and assume that multiple inconclusive tests are evidence that you are purposely sabotaging the test. – maple_shaft Apr 27 '12 at 18:56
  • No opinion here on whether or not the test is valid or how to throw results. Personally, I care enough about holding a clearance, that I haven't been willing to screw around on any of the processes of application. And not having any skills in the lie detection industry, I won't even begin to speculate with no experimentation to back it up! – bethlakshmi Apr 30 '12 at 20:02
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There were a couple of responses suggesting that the use of polygraphs were quite routine, in the US at least. Given the dubious validity of the polygraph as a lie detection mechanism, I had always assumed that Hollywood played up the role of the polygraph, but now I'm not so sure.

The results of a polygraph are used as a means to determine the general truthfulness of your statements. Often times the results of a polygraph can be accepted by a court of law on this premise.

So, how routine is the use of lie detector technology in security cleared workplaces, and indeed has anyone seen its use outside of the defence sector?

I really want to expand the comment I made, in the linked question, with regards to federal employement. The polygraph would be used to determine the truthfulness of your answers based on questions raised by the information you provided as a means to verify your background.

The example I used was timeframes where you didn't reference people, whom that can be contacted by said investigator, or whom provided answers that were say not flattering.

So, how routine is the use of lie detector technology in security cleared workplaces, and indeed has anyone seen its use outside of the defence sector?

The same agency handles ALL United States Government Security Clearance Requests. So if a security clearance is required for the job, the use of a polygraph is the same, the entire process is the same. There are additional steps the agency that handles the security background checks simply provide a recomendation at the end of the process.

As I have mentioned I have personal experience with this process, the exact details are not important, I should add the process is public knowlege.

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I got a secret clearance for a job a few years ago. There was no polygraph. No one else I worked with needed one for that clearance level.

One of the people there was ex-Air Force. He had to get a polygraph while in the AF as part of his duties but it was a small set of information they could ask about - it was an open ended set of questions. (There was a technical term for the difference(s) - not sure)

In my experience you won't get a polygraph for lower security clearances.

  • I could be mistaken, I cannot provide any proof this was even done within the bounds of policy, but as I already indicated a polygraph would only be required if there was some doubt about your background and/or the information you provided. The investigators are very good at their job. They will contact EVERYONE you list, if they cannot get into contact with them over the phone, they very likely will locate them in person. ( this happen to somebody I know ). – Ramhound Apr 27 '12 at 18:54

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