A councillor from Cornwall Council has resigned in protest of the council’s use of lie detectors to help catch benefit cheats. We congratulate Councillor Ferguson for taking the the moral high ground when it comes to privacy and proportionality in councils.
Councillor Ferguson took exception to the Council signing up to a contract with Capita to provide “voice risk analysis” as part of a scheme to help combat benefit fraud. The contract comes at a cost of £50,000 with the Council promising that the system could save at least £1 million. However, there is little evidence to suggest that this technology actually even works.
Southwark Council has taken it upon itself to install ‘lie detector tests’ to help root out benefits cheats. The Council claim that the technology, which analyses phone calls for signs of stress in the speaker’s voice, has helped catch 4,000 fraudsters over a four month period.
The voice analysis works by examining the pitch of the callers’ voices when they are asked questions and if the system suspects that someone is telling a lie a beep sounds in the operator’s ear. The operator has then been trained to ask questions which may uncover the truth. The Council has said that anyone who refuses to take part in the call will be visited for an assessment of their claim.
Despite Southwark Council’s claims that the technology is working, the government and academics have voiced their concerns about its reliability. After a trail period in 2008, the Government decided that this technology doesn’t work, and is barely any more reliable than flipping a coin. An academic study described the technology as being little better than astronomy at detecting fraud.
Considering that both the Government and Academics have ruled out the reliability of the technology it is clear that Southwark Council are wasting people’s money on an illiberal and unproven technology without remorse and is a disgrace. The Council’s approach to dealing with benefit cheats stinks of ‘guilty until proven innocent’ and perhaps it would be more useful to introduce more rigorous checks and testing before benefits are handed out.
This once again demonstrates how quickly councils will jump to ridiculous, dodgy technology to treat their residents as suspects who cannot be trusted. In the interests of equality I hope the same technology will be rolled out in council meetings and the public given access to the results.