lifestyle polygraph

A lifestyle polygraph is a lie-detector (polygraph) test that is administered as a requirement for employment in certain fields. Such tests are common as part of the screening process for any job requiring a security clearance. This includes many government jobs, as well as an increasing number of technical jobs in which employees handle, process, or can obtain access to classified data.

The purpose of the lifestyle polygraph is to determine, to the greatest extent possible, whether or not a given applicant can be trusted with sensitive information. Questioning is extensive and can involve all aspects of present and past behavior. Polygraph tests are considered reliable in detecting the truth or falsity of the answers to objective questions, especially those that can be answered with a "yes" or "no" in reference to specific acts. Subjective questions produce less reliable results. False positives and false negatives are rare (but still possible) when the proper questioning procedures are followed. The test process usually takes between one and three hours. In some instances, follow-up tests are conducted to verify the results of the first test or to clear up issues left in doubt after the first test.

Lifestyle polygraphs are controversial because no machine is 100 percent reliable, because the questioner must to some extent act as a psychologist (a role for which he or she may not be adequately trained), and also because such tests raise privacy issues. But the personal concerns of the applicant must be weighed against the need for national security, especially in jobs within, or involving contact with, government agencies. While a job applicant has the right to refuse a lifestyle polygraph, an employer can legally reject a job application solely on the basis such refusal under some circumstances.

This was last updated in April 2010

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