Brainwave Sensor Touted as Tool in Counter-Terrorism

by James Cavuoto, editor

An Iowa firm called Brain Fingerprinting Laboratories, Inc., is positioning its EEG-based brain-state analysis system as a potential tool in the fight against terrorism. The device, consisting of a headband sensor, EEG amplifier, and computer-based signal processor, attempts to detect whether a subject or suspect has had prior association with specific words, images, or other stimuli. The system is likely to generate as much controversy as it does public attention in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11.

BFL founder and president Larry Farwell would not say whether the U.S. government is planning to use the system with detainees suspected of participating in or having awareness of terrorist acts. But he has participated in several research studies funded by government agencies, including the FBI, CIA, and U.S. Navy.

In a test conducted with the FBI, the system was able to accurately identify FBI agents based on their brain wave responses when presented with relevant terms compared to irrelevant stimuli. In a similar manner, Farwell says the system could help intelligence agencies differentiate an innocent Afghani student from a member of a terrorist cell.

The brain fingerprinting system works by presenting to a subject relevant words, phrases, or pictures that would only be known by a perpetrator of an act. The subject wears a headband with sensors that measure the EEG from several locations on the scalp. Farwell has defined a response known as a MERMER, memory and encoding related multifaceted electroencephalographic response, which is derived from the EEG data at different sites. The main component of a MERMER is the P300 wave, an evoked response that has been well studied in the scientific literature as a potential indicator of recognition. The MERMER response is not present in subjects who lack specific knowledge about the word, phrase, or picture presented.

To calibrate the system, the experimenter presents a series of irrelevant stimuli, as well as words or pictures known to have relevance to the subject. The subject’s brain response to these two different types of stimuli then help the investigator determine if brain responses to test stimuli, called probes, are more similar to the relevant or irrelevant responses.

Because it is based on EEG signals, the system does not require the subject to make a verbal response to questions or stimuli. Unlike polygraph testing, it does not attempt to determine whether or not a subject is telling the truth. Rather, it attempts to determine whether the subject’s brain has a record of relevant words, phrases, or pictures.

“If brain fingerprinting can detect an FBI agent by measuring brain responses to information known only to FBI agents, we can use the same technology to detect a terrorist who has had specific terrorist training or indoctrination not known to the general public,” Farwell contends. “A trained terrorist posing as an innocent Afghani student will have information regarding terrorist training, procedures, contacts, operations, and plans stored in his brain. Brain fingerprinting can detect the presence or absence of this information, and thus distinguish the terrorist from the innocent person.”

BFL recently hired Dr. Drew Richardson, the former chief of the FBI chemical/biological counterterrorism response team, as a vice-president for forensic operations. The company’s prototype system consists of the EEG headband, a Grass preamplifier, an IBM-compatible computer, and proprietary software. Farwell envisions that production systems could be offered to law enforcement agencies for under $100,000, though he also believes that consulting fees will be an important part of the company’s revenue stream for some time. To date, BFL has been funded with private funds and some government contracts, but Farwell believes the current atmosphere would be conducive to venture capital funding.

In part because of his public persona, Farwell has attracted some detractors within the scientific, legal, and business communities. The polygraph industry has taken a dim view on brain fingerprinting, even though it is not a directly competitive technology.

Within the scientific community, several researchers believe Farwell may have overstated his system’s capabilities. Dr. John Polich, a professor of neuropharmacology at the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego and a former colleague of Farwell at the University of Illinois, concedes that there is a considerable body of literature abut the potential significance of the P300 wave. But he believes there need to be more research testing done, including corroborating research from different laboratories, before the technology is ready for commercial application. He bristles at claims of “100 percent accuracy,” contending that many more subjects need to be tested. “If I were an investor, I wouldn’t put money into it,” he sums up.

Farwell acknowledges that some scientists resent his practice of publicizing results before presenting them for peer review. “I believe it is my duty to apply my discoveries to help people in the real world. My preference is to take my discoveries out into the world, to get the thing off the ground and fly with it, to produce something that can be helpful to real people in real-life situations,” he says.

Farwell counters criticism from civil libertarians by pointing to brain fingerprinting’s potential for exonerating innocent suspects. An Iowa judge recently ruled that Farwell’s test pointing to the innocence of a person convicted of murder 23 years ago was admissible in court.



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