From Detection to Surveillance: U.S. Lie Detection Regimes from the Cold War to the War on Terror

John Philipp Baesler


When the polygraph was developed in the early twentieth century, its creators promised a reliable security technology that would furnish mutual trust between individuals, in corporations, and between government and citizens. The history of the use of the lie detector, however, shows that it was not a reliable technology and often exacerbated distrust and conflicts due to the confrontational methodology and the unsubstantiated assumptions governing its use. This history shows that security concerns—namely, the need to uphold a posture of deterrence—and bureaucratic prerogatives of the Central Intelligence Agency made the polygraph nevertheless useful. However, a regime of security did not lead to conditions of trust. This insight is crucial for an understanding of early twenty-first truth technologies based on surveillance that appears less intrusive than lie detection via the polygraph. Security technologies such as brain scanning or biometrics rely on similarly flawed assumptions about human physiology and the possibility of its representation through technology as well as ideological assumptions about the proper social relationships between individuals and between government and citizens, none of which tend to favor mutual trust.


PDF (English)