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
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 subjects 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 subjects 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
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 companys 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 companys 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 systems 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 wouldnt 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,
Farwell counters criticism from civil libertarians by pointing to
brain fingerprintings potential for exonerating innocent suspects.
An Iowa judge recently ruled that Farwells test pointing to
the innocence of a person convicted of murder 23 years ago was admissible