Can a brain scan really tell if someone committed a crime?

Here’s another disturbing story this week about India’s march into a brave new world:

When 24 year-old Aditi Sharma was tried for the murder of her former fiance, her brain was the chief witness for the prosecution. Sharma had submitted to the highly controversial Brain Electrical Oscillations Signature test (BEOS), now employed by prosecutors in the Indian states of Maharashta and Gujarat. Going beyond lie detection, the BEOS test is supposedly able to identify whether an individual possesses memories related to a specific event. And Sharma’s conviction represents the first time an Indian court has accepted the BEOS results as proof of guilt, although neuroscientists remain skeptical about the technology’s reliability.

The NY Times also covered the story.

So how is this supposed to work? You can read the two stories above for the proposed mechanism of, is it BEOS: it depends upon certain memory-related brain areas lighting up on an EEG when the alleged perpetrator of a crime listens to an account of the alleged crime. If certain areas involved in processing smell light up, for example, the interrogator may infer that you are reliving the experience, and therefore you committed the crime! And this was apparently sufficient to convince the judge in this case to issue a life sentence!

I’m not sure what to make of my still-developing country being ahead of the curve on this new technology, but perhaps it goes hand in hand with the apparent rise in the far-right in the country and the escalation of state responses towards terrorism. So now, in addition to hardening so called anti-terror laws that further curtail civil liberties, we will have these new technologies to defeat the terrorists as well as stop your everyday garden-variety crime of passion, is it? Doesn’t all this make you feel safer already?

It apparently does not trouble the judges in Maharashtra and Gujarat (two of the most industrialized, “forward” states in the nation) that the science underlying BEOS hasn’t really passed the normal standards of scientific peer review. So are we now going to accept new tools based on non-expert judicial review alone since this judgement has now set the precedent?

Who needs expert scientific peer review anyway? Welcome to the brave new world!

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