October 13, 2013

Neuroscience and the new assault on privacy


As background, we first learn about the technology that makes all of this possible: the fMRI (and no, it’s not the stock symbol for a new form of government-backed mortgages), which stands for “functional MRI,” and if you’ve had an MRI, you may already know that it is “magnetic resonance imaging” and doesn’t hurt at all (unless you’re claustrophobic like me). The “functional” part comes in because the fMRI can show the locations in the brain that are working hard, and researchers are mapping the brain to match up a unique function with its precise location. For example, the fusiform face area location of the brain has the job or function of recognizing and categorizing faces. If a person suffers brain damage in that specific area, they will have difficulty recognizing faces. And most importantly for this discussion, if this fusiform area lights up (shows activity as evidenced by more blood flow) during an fMRI, then we can reasonably surmise the subject is in the face-recognition mode. This is one school of thought in current neuroscience; the other important school is that while functional areas exist, they are not so centralized, and actually several locations may collaborate. In either case, the scientist’s goal is to correlate active, physical parts of the brain with human behavior, and great progress is being made.

Using the above as the backstory, the video proceeds to raise the following questions:

The process of eyewitness identification is murky at best; the jury must decide whether prosecutor or defense attorney makes the better case. Suppose fMRI technology could examine the relevant brain area to determine what the witness actually saw? What if it could decide whether the witness or the defendant was lying? What if it could detect which members of the jury were showing racial bias? And even if a person, say the defendant, voluntarily submitted to the fMRI procedure, what about the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution, which protects a witness from testifying against themselves?

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