Mind-reading helmet could help interrogators distinguish friend from foe

Criminals and captured enemy combatants who pride themselves on their ability to withstand tough interrogations could be in for a bit of a surprise. U.S. based company Veritas Scientific is developing an EEG helmet that will pick up on the unique signatures emitted by a person's brain, allowing interrogators to pick up on their thoughts and memories. The device is primarily intended to help the military distinguish friend from foe — but its potential to invade our privacy is a major cause for concern.

Inspired by the insights of neuroscientist J. Peter Rosenfield, the EEG helmet will work by reading the brain activity of subjects as they are given various bits of information — like an image for example. Scientists know that familiar images prompt spikes of electrical activity that indicate recognition. It will be through the careful crafting of "information slideshows" that interrogators will be able to identify an enemy.

Writing in IEEE Spectrum, Celia Gorman explains how it works:

Rosenfeld's tests-and Veritas's work-is based on certain types of brain activity known as event related potentials (ERPs). When the brain recognizes someone, there is a specific, well-documented response called a P300. A person sees a face and then identifies it as John, Mary, or Mom. As the person's brain puts a name to the face, a sharp dip in the EEG appears between 200 and 500 milliseconds after first seeing the face. That dip reveals that the subject recognizes that person. The same reaction occurs with a photo of an object, a place, or even a name.

It sounds simple, but it isn't. For each test, there is a probe image-the one the subject may recognize. It has to be a surprise, so it is mixed into a series of dummy images, some related to the probe, some not. Sometimes there's an image that prompts a physical response, such as pressing a button, to show the subject is paying attention.

It will be hard to avoid reacting inside Veritas's helmet. Fitted tightly to the head without being painful, it will be soundproofed against the outside world, says Elbot. The visor will display images only centimeters from the eyes. The metal brush sensors, still in development, are being designed to go easily through hair and conduct brain signals without the conductive gel used in hospitals.

But as Gorman rightly points out, the advent of an interrogation helmet raises a host of ethical and legal issues:

But whose enemy? Veritas would provide the U.S. military with the device first, as a way to help them pick friend from foe among captured people. But [CEO Eric] Elbot imagines that the brain-spying, truth-telling technology will also be useful for law enforcement, criminal trials, and corporate takeovers. Eventually, it will even make its way into cellphone apps for civilians, he says.

"Certainly it's a potential tool for evil," says Elbot. "If only the government has this device, it would be extremely dangerous."

EEG experiments on mock terrorism plots have been conducted in laboratories, identifying participants and detecting criminal details. Veritas wants to put its helmets on real suspected terrorists. According to Elbot, the U.S. military used an earlier Veritas device called BrainTruth to test the thoughts of suspected Iranian agents crossing the Mexican border into the United States.

According to Elbot, a specific real-world application could see people in a village in Afghanistan rounded up and interrogated with the device, allowing U.S. soldiers to classify them as friend or foe. He wants to have a prototype ready for the Pentagon's war games later this year, and is pursuing a military contract.

There's much more to Gorman's story so check it out at IEEE Spectrum.

Image via rolffimages at BigStock.com.