CrimProf Blog

Editor: Kevin Cole
Univ. of San Diego School of Law

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Brain test could be next polygraph

Brain_test A Seattle scientist who has developed an electronic brain test that he says could improve our ability to force criminals to reveal themselves, identify potential terrorists and free those wrongly convicted may have finally broken through the bureaucratic barriers that he believes have served to stifle adoption of the pioneering technique.

"There seems to be a renewed surge of interest in this by the intelligence agencies and the military," said Larry Farwell, neuroscientist and founder of Brain Fingerprinting Laboratories based at the Seattle Science Foundation.

Contrary to the Hollywood image of law enforcement always employing the latest science to track down the bad guys, Farwell's years of struggle suggest that law enforcement and intelligence agencies are just about as reluctant to change as any other entrenched government bureaucracy.

"There is always this ignorance, inertia and active resistance by those who benefit from the status quo," Farwell said.

The technique he calls "brain fingerprinting" is an electronic test of a specific kind of brain wave that he says can identify incriminating information despite an individual's attempt to conceal the knowledge.

"The lack of acceptance has been more about turf than science," said Drew Richardson, a former top anti-terrorism investigator with the FBI in Virginia who teaches forensic science and also consults with Farwell. "If this had just been about the science, I think this technique would have advanced much more quickly."

Law enforcement and other investigatory agencies still routinely use the standard lie detector "polygraph" stress test today even though most scientific organizations (including the National Academy of Sciences) have found the polygraph to be highly unreliable -- a finding that makes it legally inadmissible in court.

The disturbing news that some in the military and intelligence community have resorted to waterboarding or other forms of "physical" interrogation of prisoners appears to have provided a potential breakthrough for brain fingerprinting. [Mark Godsey]

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