Brain-scans can defeat terrorism, InfoSeek founder claims

Phrenology to the rescue


Just when you thought crowd surveillance with facial recognition gear was the sickest idea circulating, some naive do-gooder comes along with 'brain fingerprinting' to detect evil memories, loudly urging its use as a public security measure in the wake of the 11 September tragedies.

Steve Kirsch, founder of InfoSeek and current CEO of data management outfit Propel Software, reckons that the relevant technology companies could deliver a working system of brain fingerprinting databases and a companion iris scanning system for (supposedly anonymous) identification reference in something like ninety days' time. And this will "infallibly" defeat terrorists, he fervently believes.

How it works

Kirsch's mental intrusion scheme is based on 'multifaceted electroencephalographic response analysis' (MERA), an electronic form of phrenology promoted by BrainWave Science company President Larry Farwell, whose Gibson-esque self-promoting Web site appears to be little more than a gallery of all the dupes he's taken in. These include US Senator Charles Grassley (Republican, Iowa), 60 Minutes correspondent Mike Wallace, and a slew of newspapers, magazines, and TV and radio producers -- along with our Kirsch.

The technique has "a record of one-hundred per cent accuracy in research on FBI agents, research with US government agencies, and field applications," Farwell gushes.

He neglects to mention that the FBI trial involved a scant twenty-one test subjects, however -- hardly the makings of anything approaching statistical significance.

Farwell also exhibits a Gibson-esque fascination with polysyllabic techno-gobbledygook.

"Words or pictures relevant to a crime are flashed on a computer screen, along with other, irrelevant words or pictures. Electrical brain responses are measured non-invasively through a patented headband equipped with sensors. A specific brain-wave response called a MERMER (memory and encoding related multifaceted electroencephalographic response) is elicited when the brain processes noteworthy information it recognizes. (The MERMER contains another, well known and scientifically established brain response known as a P300.)," he tells us.

"When details of the crime that only the perpetrator would know are presented, a MERMER is emitted by the brain of a perpetrator, but not by the brain of an innocent suspect. In Farwell Brain Fingerprinting, a computer analyzes the brain response to detect the MERMER, and thus determines scientifically whether or not the specific crime-relevant information is stored in the brain of the suspect."

Note the repeated use of the adverb 'scientifically' -- a mannerism much in evidence among marketing copywriters, and charlatans.

Air travel redeemed

To make the skies safe for Democracy with this kit, Kirsch proposes that "once every few years, each person who wishes to travel puts on a headset and watches video images for ten minutes. This action allows us to establish a 'security risk profile' and tie that profile to his iris data."

The video images in question would be related to information only praticing terrorists would have on file within their brains. The subject's resulting 'security risk profile' would be associated with his or her iris image so that a quick eyeball scan at the airport check in, or the sport stadium turnstile, would blow the whistle and they'd be forbidden to enter.

Poor Kirsch; he seems unable to imagine the diabolical uses to which such technology can be put.

"It's....private because you can control who accesses your data and your data is not released to anyone. You just permit your knowledge area to be judged against the profile of the place you wish to enter. You get to choose whether or not you want to associate your security screening with your name, i.e., you can take the test anonymously without providing any identification," he chirps.

Sure, it can be set up that way (assuming it works as advertised, which we kinda doubt); and if that was the limit, it probably wouldn't be all that bad. But nothing's going to prevent the government or big business from associating personally-identifying data with these profiles one day down the road.

And nothing's going to prevent other, related applications from emerging. How about a tool for employment pre-screening?

   -- Microsoft human resources manager: "We're just going to read you a few lines of text and watch how your brain responds:
1.) 'Bill Gates blows goats'"
   -- Applicant: "I...uh..."
[Cue siren and dim/raise stage lights once per second]
   -- Microsoft human resources manager: "Thank you so much for your interest...."

Amusing? Not really: how about something extremely nasty, like an interrogation tool for penal institutions or in the hands of a repressive government? The possibilities are endless, and grotesque.

Kirsch's grand scheme for your protection and Farwell's enrichment is elaborated in excruciating detail here. ®


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