From the 28th January, as part of an extended pilot scheme, residents of Nottingham will be subject to Voice Risk Analysis when telephoning to make a claim for Job Seekers' Allowance.
Voice Risk Analysis (VRA) software analyses a person's 'normal' voice and flags up changes in frequency and tone characteristics which may mean the person is lying. The DWP has helped to fund a series of local pilot schemes to study the effectiveness of the technology in reducing so-called "benefit fraud" (which pales into insignificance when compared with tax evasion by the rich). Even amongst those who worry about such things, there is scepticism about this usefulness of this technology as an anti-fraud tool. Mainstream critics say that savings do not necessarily mean the software is accurately pinpointing fraudsters, arguing that genuine claimants may also be deterred from claiming when entitled to benefits.
Background Links: Nottingham Proforma for Expressions of Interest for DWP City Strategy | Strategy: Nottingham Local Area Agreement | DWP Fraud and error - Voice Risk Analysis (VRA) | DWP Press Release: Hutton announces new technology to strengthen fight against benefit fraud | TUC lies, damned lies and lie detectors: introducing lie detector tests for benefit claimants | Handard - Social Security Benefits: Lie Detectors 23 Apr 2007 : Column 928W | Government to use voice 'lie detector' technology to catch benefit thieves | Advanced Validation Services (AVS)
Image by Straybear (flickr.com/straybear)
Following similar schemes in Edinburgh, Durham, Chester-le-Street, Harrow (London) and Birmingham, residents of Nottingham will now be subjected to having their speech analysed if seeking financial support while looking for work. The pilot will operate within a call centre in Lincoln from January for a limited period, concluding the DWP's research by around springtime. Presumably ministers will then decide whether to roll the technology out across the welfare sector in order to conserve tax payers' cash.
People wanting the Job Seekers' benefit are now directed to initiate a claim by calling the Job Centre's New Claims number. Claims are initially assessed on the basis of information given over the telephone, but some people are required to attend an interview to provide additional information or evidence. The Job Centre Plus call centre in Lincoln will be using VRA software to monitor stress levels in callers' voices and identify claimants who may be trying to claim benefits when the state has decided they are not entitled. Callers who are identified as being a High Risk of fraud will then be interviewed and have their claims examined more closely.
The VRA software, based on the polygraph and owned by the Capita group (who are involved in various government projects, including the nascent National identity Database), works by detecting inaudible fluctuations in the human voice which are linked with stress. However, the technology relies on a single measure unlike the traditional polygraph which also takes measurements of heart rate, respiratory rate (breathing), and sweating. (Bear in mind that even polygraphs cannot be used as evidence in courts due to their limited reliability.) The available scientific research into VRA is hardly an overwhelming endorsement of its accuracy. An American study published in 2005, for instance, tested five different VRA devices and five different operators, several of them with many years of experience. This paper found that these systems were only accurate in about 62% of cases, with the software giving 22% false positives and 14% false negatives.
James Plaskitt, anti-fraud minister, said: 'I'm always interested to deploy as much technology as we can to help us achieve further reductions in fraudulent claiming of benefits. We know that this particular piece of technology has been used for some years by the insurance industry in the UK, and they certainly claim considerable benefits from it. I think it's sensible for us to pilot it in respect of benefit claims.'
DWP press officer Darragh McElroy could not point to any evidence to support the use of VRA software, but said DWP statisticians would analyse the results of the pilot recordings to evaluate the scheme’s success at detecting fraud. He said that applicants whom the software labels as ‘high risk’ will be subject to further investigations into their personal lives, such as having bank accounts checked or visits to their homes, but that these were the usual checks. The software is hoped to replace the ‘‘eyes’ of the operative’, as face to face contact is phased out in favour of telephone applications.
The Nottingham lie-detecting pilot scheme commences on January 28th, targeting new and repeat claimants for Jobseeker’s Allowance and Income Support, and will run for approximately a month, before data from this and the other trials is processed and the decision made as to whether or not to proceed with the intention to roll out the use of the software for all benefits applications.
It remains to be seen when similar technology will be introduced to assess the claims of government ministers.