June 29, 2006 – Civil-liberties advocates are calling on the government to disclose how it plans to uncover suspectsâ€™ lies during counter-terrorism investigations.
In a Freedom of Information Act request filed Monday, the American Civil Liberties Union requested that the Pentagon, the National Security Agency, the CIA, the FBI and Department of Homeland Security turn over all records relating to the possible use of "brain scan" techniques during interrogations. The request follows recent reports that the government is exploring such technology as a tool for interrogiation.
Amid heightened national security concerns in the so-called "war on terror," new technologies for investigating terrorism have piqued the interest of scientists, government institutions and commercial interests. More intrusive than traditional polygraph "lie detector" tests, functional magnetic-resonance imaging (fMRI) produces live "snapshots" of brain activity as a person responds to questions. Similarly, electroencephalographic (EEG) scanning involves recording brain activity with electrode sensors. Both methods could enable interrogators to peer into a suspectâ€™s mental processes to look for indicators of deception â€“ for instance, more intense activity in certain parts of the brain that clinical studies have designated as "lie zones."
Earlier this year, fMRI and EEG were spotlighted in articles by the New York Times Magazine and the Associated Press on collaborative efforts by academic researchers and the Pentagon to sharpen lie-detection techniques. At least two companies, CEPHOS Corporation and No Lie MRI, specialize in developing fMRI as a forensic technology, and both corporationsâ€™ websites list the federal government as a target client.
In a 2003 report on the inadequacies of the polygraph system, the scientific association National Research Council noted the potential of fMRI and EEG for detecting deception. However, the Council said that the practical uses of the technologies were unclear, since the research is inconclusive on how they might apply to real-life interrogation situations as opposed to controlled laboratory settings.
The ACLU argues that the government is leaping ahead of the science and paving the way for a dramatic, potentially abusive extension of its reach into peopleâ€™s private lives. In a statement announcing the information request Barry Steinhardt, director of the ACLU's Technology and Liberty Project, warned, "These brain-scanning technologies are far from ready for forensic uses, and if deployed will inevitably be misused and misunderstood.