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 Cognitive Liberty & Mental Surveillance

The principle of mental sovereignty and cognitive liberty is predicated on the idea that one’s thoughts are one’s own, that the surreptitious control or outright manipulation of an individual’s mind marks an unacceptable invasion of mental privacy, and necessarily cramps freedom of thought by discouraging the production of new ideas via coercive psychological threat. Much in the same way that employee drug testing acts to control employee behavior, surveillance in general, affects the way people act. With mental surveillance, the question becomes how your thoughts do or don’t “behave” and how thinking is indirectly controlled under the auspices of surveillance.  Presently, cognitive liberty is threatened by one important new technology that makes possible mental monitoring: 

Brain Fingerprinting

"Brain Fingerprinting," a computer-based method of memory detection, and its use in a small number of criminal cases, have significant implications for cognitive liberty.  In the aftermath of 9/11, Brain Fingerprinting has received fresh billing from its advocates and endorsements by researchers, politicians and the media as a potential anti-terrorist screening measure. Bandwagon endorsements of Brain Fingerprinting ignore the potential threat to freedom of thought posed by requiring a person to have his or her memories "read" by such a device.


What is Brain Fingerprinting?

According to its developer, Brain Fingerprinting is designed to determine whether an individual recognizes specific information related to an event or activity by measuring electrical brain wave responses to words, phrases, or pictures presented on a computer screen.  The technique can be applied only in situations where investigators have a sufficient amount of specific information about an event or activity that would be known only to the perpetrator and investigator.  In this respect, Brain Fingerprinting is considered a type of Guilty Knowledge Test, where the "guilty" party is expected to react strongly to the relevant details of the event or activity.  

Existing (polygraph) procedures for assessing the validity of a suspect's "guilty" knowledge rely on measurement of autonomic arousal (e.g., palm sweating and heart rate), while Brain Fingerprinting measures electrical brain activity via a fitted headband containing special sensors.  Brain Fingerprinting is said to be more accurate in detecting "guilty" knowledge distinct from the false positives of traditional polygraph methods, but this is hotly disputed by specialized researchers.

Advocates of Brain Fingerprinting

Brain Fingerprinting Website

Identifying Terrorists Using Brain Fingerprinting

After September 11th’s sad events, national security measures that would effectively identify would be terrorists and that might prevent similar attacks in the future are gaining attention. Most visibly, among the various measures being put forward are the use of devices that check a person's identity by monitoring biometric identifiers as fingerprints, retina, or facial patterns.

Steve Kirsch goes one step further in regards to airport security, and argues for the use of Brain Fingerprinting in combination with biometric information databases to establish each passenger’s identity and identify potential terrorists before boarding planes.

Kirsh is actively raising money to persuade the FBI to build a test version of such a system.

Brain Fingerprinting as Counter-Terrorist System

Brain Fingerprinting as a counter-terrorist system that could be used to determine whether a person has "critical information regarding terrorist organizations, training, and plans that an innocent person does not have."

Decoding Minds and Information Injection

Brain Fingerprinting as a viable method of mind reading, one that should be available to military and law enforcement in order to ascertain probable cause, not to investigate cases where probable cause is already established. Also, addresses the possibilities of hostile enemy "information injection" and the need for US "knowledge warfare protection systems."  

Critics of Brain Fingerprinting

The CCLE is opposed to compulsory Brain Fingerprinting because it threatens cognitive liberty and violates the sanctity of the mind. Compelled Brain Fingerprinting intrudes on the individual's right to mental privacy, it should not be mandated by courts, governments, corporations, or any other institution.


US General Accounting Office Report (October 2001) 

This federal report looks at the viability of brain fingerprinting for application in a number of government agencies.  The consensus among those interviewed for the report is that brain fingerprinting has limited applicability and usefulness in agency screening matters.

European Parliament Report on Interception Capabilities 2000

A year 2000 report on the worldwide development of surveillance technology and risk of abuse of economic information.

Society for Neuroscience on Brain Wave Deception Research 2001

In this report, scientists using the brain imaging technique, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), detected a difference in brain blood flow activity during intentionally deceptive and truthful statements. 

Brainwave Sciences' Amicus brief in Support of Terry Harrington
Brief by inventor of brain fingerprinting arguing that results of test were reliable, and support Harrington's murder alibi.


Related News 

PBS "Innovations" Brain Fingerprinting Episode
Episode 8 of the PBS series "Innovations" takes balanced view of brain fingerprinting. Focused mostly on the science, with minimal consideration of the freedom of thought implications.

NASA Teams up with Northwestern
After two years, the public has finally learned that Northwest Airlines did indeed give the National Aeronautics and Space Administration sensitive consumer data for use in a bizarre research program that combined data-mining and "brain-monitoring" technology.

Brain Fingerprinting Fails First Court Test in Iowa: Evidence admitted but Does not Convince. From

The Deceit Detector
Scientist develops infrared-based brain imaging device. MIT Technology Review (June 2003)

The guilty mind What if a brain scan could catch a murderer?: 'Brain fingerprinting' measures neural response to images from a crime scene. Ethicists fear it as a new tool of social control Brad Evenson, National Post, February 08, 2003

John Norseen: Reading your mind - and injecting smart thoughts
uck Rogers, meet John Norseen. Like the comic-strip hero, a 20th century man stuck in the 25th century, Norseen feels he’s not quite in the right time. His brain-research ideas are simply too futuristic. And he admits his current obsession seems to have been lifted from a Rogers saga. The Lockheed Martin neuroengineer hopes to turn the “electrohypnomentalophone,” a mind-reading machine invented by one of Buck’s buddies, from science fiction into science fact."

Would You Mind If We Fingerprint Your Brain? By Dave McGowan

Biology of Deception
New York Times, July 9, 2002 

Can Computers Read Your Mind?
Tech TV, May 30, 2002,24195,3386341,00.html

Medical Detection of False Witness

Decoding Minds and Information Injection

Identifying Terrorists Using Brain Fingerprinting

Brainwave Sensor Touted as Tool in Counter-Terrorism

Brain fingerprinting: What you thought, what I meant,10738,2816429,00.html

Brain-scans can defeat terrorism, InfoSeek founder claims

Brain's Telltale Chart (Science & Technology Section)

Related Links

Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC)

Privacy Foundation

The Cato Institute

The Rubber Hose

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