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June 29, 2006

Lies, Damned Lies, and fMRI

Sometimes TNS news briefs can be deceptively short, as was the case with today’s item on – of all things – deception.

We refrained from going too in-depth on this topic, since the American Civil Liberties Union’s FOIA request is just the first probe into what could be a very interesting debate on the use of medical technology to root out lying terrorists. Or at least those incriminated by the images on a brain-scan monitor.

This latest crease in government’s shroud of surveillance is still unfolding, but some speculation on the future of this technology can be found in a recent Cornell Law Review article. Legal scholar Sean Kevin Thompson rather pragmatically mapped out how functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) could become another powerful, and extremely controversial, tool in the government’s anti-terror campaigns.

Broaching the ethical implications of brain-scanning, Thompson wrote that fMRI technology might serve national-security agents as an effective "aggressive interrogation" tactic with minimal risk to the government’s (already dismal) public image. Unlike images of tortured prisoners flashed across the news media, he explained, brain-scanning could mine suspects' minds ruthlessly for evidence of lying and guilt, but without bloodshed, thus avoiding the public outrage that outright torture has drawn. On the other hand, he noted, the coercive, involuntary use of fMRI on terror suspects would in many cases violate both international human rights law and the US Constitution.

Of course, putting aside the ethical and legal issues, whether the evidence extracted is even accurate remains very questionable at this point, according to researchers. So when announcing its FOIA request, the ACLU argued that a rush to deploy nascent brain-scanning technology in the "war on terror" would leave civil liberties at the mercy of a criminological experiment. Barry Steinhardt, director of the ACLU's Technology and Liberty Project, commented, "What we don't want is to open our newspapers and find that another innocent person has been thrown into Guantánamo because interrogators have jumped to conclusions based on a technology no one understands very well."

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.