Sunday, November 27, 2022

Picking a Criminal’s Brain

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Brain fingerprinting is a new tool that is expected to change the face of the criminal justice system. While it is used abroad, in India, investigators would need the court’s permission to use it to probe crimes

By Kaushik Joshi in Ahmedabad

A new technology will bring criminals under the scanner literally. While they are often one step ahead of the police, a new forensic tool will trip them and help them get convicted or freed.

Dr Lawrence
Dr Lawrence Farwell, chief scientist, Brainwave Science,US

This technology is the brain fingerprinting (BFP) developed by Dr Lawrence Farwell, chief scientist at Brainwave Science, US, whose research helped paralyzed patients communicate to a computer via brainwaves using a speech synthesizer and control robots. Incidentally, the BFP technique can also be used to evaluate the effectiveness of advertisements and early detection of Alzheimer’s and other cognitively degenerative diseases.

This tool detects concealed information stored in the brain by measuring the electrical signals emanating from it. It thereby helps to identify the perpetrator of a crime or exonerate those who are innocent. The subject is shown pictures or words on a computer and his response to the stimuli is recorded.


Conventional fingerprinting and DNA testing match physical evidence from the scene with evidence found on a culprit. This is uncovered in only one percent of crimes. However, brain fingerprinting is applicable in 60-70 percent of the same cases, giving an edge to forensic science. Thus, it can have a lasting impact on the criminal justice system.

India’s first BFP forensic laboratory was set up recently when Ahmedabad-based Raksha Shakti University (RSU) signed an MoU with Brainwave Science LLC, Massachusetts, US. This University was established in 2010 to impart education and training in internal security.

Brainwave Science trained 25 people over a five-day workshop and these included IPS officers, faculty of Gujarat Forensic Science University, CBI officers and faculty and research scholars of RSU. The training was imparted by Brainwave Science’s Richard Keifer, former senior manager at the FBI; Raymond Thair, former senior officer at the FBI and Kimi Ko, senior application trainer.

“Initially, we will have validation during which we will check reliability and consistency of this technology in the Indian context,” says Bijen Zachariah, a research scholar and facilitator in the lab. His brother, Bibin, also a research scholar, says: “All this technology requires is an air-conditioned room with low-light and no shadow to avoid maximum error for better result.” The BFP system is ergonomically designed, portable, bullet-proof and fire-proof and the software is incorporated into the computer.

The BFP technology uses EEG to detect whether specific information is stored in a suspect’s brain by measuring electrical brainwaves and recording a response to it known as P-300 MERMER (Memory and
Encoding Related Multifaceted

Electroencephalographic Response). In 1965, scientists discovered a distinct surge of electrical activity in the brain when a person saw something familiar, usually arriving 300 milliseconds after the object was revealed. So it was called P-300.

Rajesh and Nupur Talwar, parents of the slain Aarushi Talwar

It works by attaching an EEG headset equipped with sensors to a person’s scalp. Then the computer screen flashes crime-related images, words, phrases, audio and videos for a fraction of a second. This leads to electrical activity in the person’s brain which can be read and is represented by different colored lines.
Three types of information are analyzed:

Information that the suspect knows, though he may not have committed a crime.

Information not known to the suspect.

Crime-related information only the perpetrator would know.

If the suspect recognizes what’s being shown on screen, a P-300 response will occur. A processor digitizes these signals and feeds it into the application for further detection. The data gathered is then transferred to a cloud server for analysis and computation. The end results are categorized as “Information Present” and “Information Absent”. A conventional polygraph relies on flashes of sweat which is a physiological reaction (panic) when one lies. Thus, brain fingerprinting scores over traditional forensic techniques.

Ankita Patel, 24, a research scholar at RSU, says: “We have a forensic technique called BEOS (Brain Electrical Oscillation Signature Profile), but BFP scores over it since there are no false positives and false negatives and the suspect can’t manipulate in the test.” Nirali Jasani, 24, another scholar, says: “BFP is the greatest thing ever in catching culprits. It can be used in petty crime cases also.”

Ankita Patel and Nirali Jasani



While validation of the BFP technique is underway, RSU director Dr Shivarathna Vaya, says: “Once we begin working as consultants, we could cover even sleeper cell suspects to ferret out information in terrorism-related cases. But investigating agencies have to get the court’s permission for the test. Put simply, we are like a pathological lab. Security agencies have to approach us with due references.”



Bijen says the BFP technique can be used to crack cases like the Sheena Bora murder, Aarushi case and Sister Abhaya case (Catholic nun found dead in a convent in Kottayam, Kerala).

What makes the BFP technique a winner is that it is the brain’s fingerprint and eliminates all emotional aspects. This is unlike conventional polygraph tests which rely on skin response (sweating), respiration, heart rate and blood pressure. Thus, the BFP is more scientific as it picks up only the brain’s electrical signals before the suspect has time to manipulate the output. A bump in electrical activity is recorded between 300-800 milliseconds after the suspect has watched the stimuli. Authorities claim that BFP has proven to be 99 percent accurate in tests by the FBI, the CIA and the US Navy.

Not just criminals, BFP can prove crucial in matters of counter-terrorism and national security. The technique can also be used in cases of violent crime, organized crime, drug trafficking, human trafficking, cyber crime, espionage, kidnapping and rape.

However, some observers are worried about the effect it could have on the legal system. Prof Jane Moriarty, professor at Duquesne’s School of Law in Pittsburgh, US, feels that this tool is not yet ready for the courtroom as not enough testing has been done on it. She feels that laboratory testing can’t reliably replicate the brain activity of a suspect being interrogated for an actual crime. Prof Moriarty is also concerned about neurologically atypical suspects like psychopaths or the mentally ill.

“It is not clear how scientists can control those factors. They could leave a dangerous loophole if the method is more widely adopted,” she argues.

These are some challenges that BFP will face.

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