NEW YORK - June 28 - In the face of suspicions that the government is using cutting-edge brain-scanning technologies on suspected terrorists being held overseas or at home, the American Civil Liberties Union today announced that it has filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests with all the primary American security agencies.
"There are certain things that have such powerful implications for our society -- and for humanity at large -- that we have a right to know how they are being used so that we can grapple with them as a democratic society," said Barry Steinhardt, Director of the ACLU's Technology and Liberty Project. "These brain-scanning technologies are far from ready for forensic uses and if deployed will inevitably be misused and misunderstood."
The most likely technology to be used for anti-terrorism purposes is Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), which can produce live, real-time images of people's brains as they answer questions, view images, listen to sounds, and respond to other stimuli. Two private companies have announced that they will begin to offer "lie detection" services using fMRI as early as this summer. These companies are marketing their services to federal government agencies, including the Department of Defense, Department of Justice, the National Security Agency and the CIA, and to state and local police departments.
"This technology must not be deployed until it is proven effective -- and we are a long way away from that point, according to scientists in the field," said Steinhardt. "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."
Experts in the field say that the science to back up any reliable use of fMRI as a "lie detector" or "mind reader" simply does not exist. At most, correlations have been observed between certain brain patterns and particular, highly controlled behaviors produced in laboratory experiments. But experts note that these early experiments on a few American college students are a long way from real-world settings, involving individuals in widely varying situations and with widely varying cultures, intelligence levels and states of mind.
The ACLU's FOIA requests were filed yesterday with the Pentagon, NSA, CIA, FBI and Department of Homeland Security.
"These brain-scanning technologies have potentially far-reaching implications, yet uncertain results and effectiveness," said Steinhardt. "And we are still in our infancy when it comes to understanding the underlying processes of the brain that the scanners have begun to reveal. We do not want to see our government yet again deploying a potentially momentous technology unilaterally and in secret, before Americans have had a chance to figure out how it fits in with our values as a nation."
The ACLU’s FOIA request is available online at www.aclu.org/privacy/gen/26031res20060628.html.
A video of an ACLU-sponsored forum featuring experts discussing the use of fMRI as a
“lie detector” is online at www.aclu.org/future.