Using voice analysis to detect benefit cheats

ratlieThe media is reporting that a pilot scheme in the UK to use voice stress analysis (or, more accurately, “voice risk analysis”) on benefit applicants is a success. The Observer headline proclaims Technology set to be introduced nationwide after pilot saves £110,000 (2 September):

Benefit claimants and job seekers could be forced to take lie detector tests as early as next year after an early review of a pilot scheme exposed 126 benefit cheats in just three months, saving one local authority £110,000.

The news report also points out that many are skeptical:

Experts in America, where the most comprehensive scrutiny of the technology has taken place, warn that the technology is far from failsafe. David Ashe, chief deputy of the Virginia Board for Professional and Occupational Regulation, said, ‘The experience of being tested, or of claiming a benefit and being told that your voice is being checked for lies, is inherently stressful. ‘Lie detector tests have a tendency to pass people for whom deception is a way of life and fail those who are scrupulously honest.’

Reading beyond the headlines, it’s clear that the pilot study is not finished, it hasn’t been properly evaluated, and no decision has yet been made. In Lie detector beats benefit fraud, silicon.com (3 Sept) reveals

A spokesman for the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) – which funded the pilot – told silicon.com the department will evaluate the technology when the trial is completed next May. He said the DWP will “look at the evaluation results and see if it’s viable, see if it’s something to work on and see if other councils are interested in doing it”. If the benefits are seen as sufficient, the system could potentially be rolled out across the country, although no firm plans are currently in place.

But this hasn’t stopped others jumping on the VSA bandwagon, as the Telegraph (9 Sept) and BBC Online (7 Sept) report that Birmingham Council is next in line to adopt the system.

More Deception Blog posts on this story here and here, and more generally on VSA here.

Photo credit: niznoz, Creative Commons License

3 thoughts on “Using voice analysis to detect benefit cheats”

  1. I wonder how many benefit cheats would have been expected to be caught in the same period – and whether the £110k figure takes that into account?

    On a back of the envelope calculation I estimated that there would be a 3% increase in detected liars using this system, assuming a 5% fraud rate, with over 90% of liars innocent:

    http://pyjamasinbananas.blogspot.com/2007/09/lie-detectors.html

    Not much better than just randomly accusing people really.

  2. Interesting post PJ, thanks for the link!

    As I understand it, applicants aren’t rejected just on the basis of the voice analysis results. Rather, the results indicate to the council official that they should screen particular applicants in greater depth. If the DWP’s trial includes a second group where a certain percent of applicants are randomly screened in depth regardless of voice analysis result then that might help to test your hypothesis. They don’t mention it in their page on the technology (http://www.dwp.gov.uk/housingbenefit/secure/voice-risk-analysis.asp) but we can live in hope…

    PS We also need to take into account the costs of the system itself (plus training). It ain’t cheap…

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