2006-04-03

"Brain fingerprinting" smudged



Best animated GIF ever! Comes with the caption "How it works" from an article about brain fingerprinting a.k.a. brain mapping in India. Because obviously investigators can reach down from the sky into the brain, smush a hand around, and emerge with a criminal memory. It's just like that. (I love how bouncy the brain is, too.)

It makes as much sense as calling such a process brain "fingerprinting" (which has nothing to do with memories, it's about identifying individual biometrics, which is why there's also DNA fingerprinting) when you're doing nothing of the kind. Perhaps in another form there are biometrics involving the concept of fingerprinting brains (no doubt there are, and retina scanning is close) but EEG to test for memories isn't that.

Brain fingerprinting involves measuring the MERMER paradigm EEG response during interrogation and although it has been used in some criminal cases in the US (without much success; Jimmy Ray Slaughter's capital execution appeal based on brain fingerprinting was denied), it has been soundly criticized.

"Note the repeated use of the adverb 'scientifically' -- a mannerism much in evidence among marketing copywriters, and charlatans," was one reaction to Dr. Farwell's claims. Methodology was another issue.

Brain fingerprinting was developed with the FBI and made its way to India's justice system for a terrorism trial. The fact it's now being used in sexual assault cases is alarming considering that the developer's own web site warns:

In what kinds of cases does Brain Fingerprinting testing not apply?

There are several types of cases where this technology does not apply. For example, in a disappearance, all the authorities may know is that someone disappeared. They may not know if any crime has been committed. Another situation where Brain Fingerprinting testing is not applicable is when everyone agrees on what happened, but there is disagreement as to the intent of the parties. For example, in a sexual assault case the alleged victim and the alleged perpetrator may agree exactly on what happened, but disagree on whether or not it was consensual.


The Forensic Science Laboratories in Mumbai have apparently not visited the web site (or their in-box to write me back). Perhaps their system came from another supplier; you can even build your own from open source. However, India signed a contract with Brain Fingerprinting in 2004. [This was alleged by a few web sites, not good sources, and the manufacturer denies sales in India, and informs me that a competitor in India is the source.] I wonder if they know the name was changed to brain mapping? At least in popular usage in India.

PBS produced a special on brain fingerprinting; (take a test and watch a video clip). But nobody seems to be looking at its use in India since the US introduced the technology. It's being misused, applied to the wrong cases, even though the source of the technology publicly warns against its use in sexual assault trials.

Even in appropriate cases: "The technique, however, can't be used on the mentally ill, heavy alcoholics and 'might fail on a habitual criminal.'"

That sure rules out a lot of cases, doesn't it?

And here in Psychophysiology: "...tests of deception detection based on P300 amplitude as a recognition index may be readily defeated with simple countermeasures that can be easily learned."

Lots more disputes, academic discussion on Farwell's article Using brain MERMER testing to detect knowledge despite efforts to conceal in the Journal of Forensic Sciences, listed here. Also, an article from the BBC on its use in the legal system in the UK. All very negative.

Then why is India using it? (And why is someone soliciting for donations to train 5000 brain fingerprinting technicians in Colorado?) There's also a procedure using sodium pentathol in interrogations, as mentioned in Deception Blog. Both of these techniques were developed - and debunked - in the US.

Clearly India's methods of investigation need as much re-examination as their rape laws. Are they benefitting from modernizations, or have they been deceived?

2 Comments:

Blogger Eve said...

I may just be a humble undergrad, but the second I read about this (and the sodium pentathol) my crazy meter started blinking really fast.

4/4/06 05:22  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

another awesome investigative post - wow.

i was glad to read that someone has actually tested whether or not you can fake p300. It seems to me that a quick neurofeedback session (supplied by your defense lawyer?) could be all you need to fake a "brain fingerprinting" test.

4/4/06 07:31  

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