Indian cops using brain scans to detect lies

FILE; JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/Getty Images There’s a fascinating article in today’s New York Times about India’s controversial practice of using electronic brain scans for lie-detection in interrogation. Two Indian states have been using electroencephalograms (EEGs) to interrogate criminal suspects since 2006, but this summer was the first time a judge handed down a conviction based on ...

592596_080915_eeg5.jpg
592596_080915_eeg5.jpg

FILE; JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/Getty Images

There's a fascinating article in today's New York Times about India's controversial practice of using electronic brain scans for lie-detection in interrogation. Two Indian states have been using electroencephalograms (EEGs) to interrogate criminal suspects since 2006, but this summer was the first time a judge handed down a conviction based on the data. Here's how the procedure works:

This latest Indian attempt at getting past criminals’ defenses begins with an electroencephalogram, or EEG, in which electrodes are placed on the head to measure electrical waves. The suspect sits in silence, eyes shut. An investigator reads aloud details of the crime — as prosecutors see it — and the resulting brain images are processed using software built in Bangalore.

FILE; JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/Getty Images

There’s a fascinating article in today’s New York Times about India’s controversial practice of using electronic brain scans for lie-detection in interrogation. Two Indian states have been using electroencephalograms (EEGs) to interrogate criminal suspects since 2006, but this summer was the first time a judge handed down a conviction based on the data. Here’s how the procedure works:

This latest Indian attempt at getting past criminals’ defenses begins with an electroencephalogram, or EEG, in which electrodes are placed on the head to measure electrical waves. The suspect sits in silence, eyes shut. An investigator reads aloud details of the crime — as prosecutors see it — and the resulting brain images are processed using software built in Bangalore.

The software tries to detect whether, when the crime’s details are recited, the brain lights up in specific regions — the areas that, according to the technology’s inventors, show measurable changes when experiences are relived, their smells and sounds summoned back to consciousness. The inventors of the technology claim the system can distinguish between people’s memories of events they witnessed and between deeds they committed.

Based on this scan, a woman who claims to be innocent was convicted in June of poisoning her fiancé.

Neuroscientists have widely condemned this application of EEGs, which has not been sufficiently peer-reviewed to have gained wide acceptance. It’s not too far-fetched, though, to see it as the future of criminal investigation. Officials from Singapore and Israel have expressed interest in the Indian program and similar procedures have been developed in the United States.

Before we condemn India for using such an unproven technology in murder trials, it’s worth pointing out that U.S. law enforcement agencies still regularly administer polygraph tests even though the Supreme Court ruled them unreliable a decade ago. And of course, there’s bullet lead analysis, which the FBI used for four decades before it was discredited.

Let’s just be sure these new technologies really work this time around before we start putting them in front of juries.

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy  Twitter: @joshuakeating

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