Some day journalists will write about how thousands of suspects were injected with drugs that caused debilitating side effects, and failed to produce any credible information for investigators. Perhaps there will even be demands for compensation filed. For the moment, I hope judges across the nation agree to an immediate moratorium on narco analysis and brain mapping till forensic scientists of proven credentials attest to their efficacy.
Here are the two columns I wrote in Time Out about the issue. The first was published in 2006, the second in 2008. Some irrelevant text has been cut out and replaced by ellipses.
It now seems standard Bombay police practice to fly the accused in high profile cases down to the Karnataka State Forensic Science Laboratory (FSL) in Bangalore... The Bangalore lab’s USP is what the police call ‘brain mapping’...
A little digging told me that ‘brain mapping’ is a misnomer for tests conducted in Bangalore, which are more akin to ‘brain fingerprinting’. Neurologists have known for decades that seeing a familiar image triggers a characteristic, measurable neural response called a P300. An inventor named Lawrence Farwell has created a memory-detector machine based on this involuntary response. He calls the procedure brain fingerprinting. If, for instance, an accused in a homicide claims he’s never visited the victim’s house, his brain could trip him up by sending out P300 waves when shown photographs of the home’s interior. However, finding material to which only a guilty brain will respond is exceptionally difficult and has restricted the use of brain fingerprinting. In the above instance, policemen might have shown the suspect pictures of the home during questioning, or images may have appeared in the media.
To make matters murkier, it turns out that the Bangalore forensic lab doesn’t use Farwell’s patented method but a variant called Brain Electrical Activation Fingerprinting developed by Dr. C R Mukundan, formerly of NIMHANS (National Institute of Mental Health and Neural Sciences). Three years ago, Mukundan received a grant of Rs.70 lakhs (bizarrely, from the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting) to evolve an indigenous brain fingerprinting technique. BEAF involves recreating the crime through auditory stimuli, an extremely imprecise process which could never hope to provide unambiguous results. Unlike Farwell, who has been writing research papers for twenty years, Mukundan appears to have published nothing about BEAF’s efficacy in respected peer-reviewed journals. What he has done is to start a company called Brainex to market his unproven machine. This sounds to me like voodoo science, somewhere between herbal fuel and cold fusion.
The BEAF route is significantly more expensive than the default technique used by police, which, of course, is to beat up suspects till they say whatever cops want them to say. But I suspect it will fare as pathetically in court as forced confessions have done for years.
Forensic technology can help get many criminals convicted, but its judicious use requires well-trained, honest, professionals, which the police utterly lack. Case in point: the Marine Drive rape where, despite all circumstances being favourable, no clinching DNA evidence has been found tying constable Sunil More to the crime.
Bheja Fry Redux
In a column published two years ago, I criticised the police for their increasing reliance on ‘narco-analysis’ and brain scans in criminal investigations. Since then, two additional labs have been set up for Brain Electrical Oscillation Signature (BEOS) testing, including one in
Meanwhile, the inventor of BEOS, C. R. Mukundan, has yet to publish a single paper about the technique in a peer-reviewed journal. Last year, the central government appointed a committee of six experts to probe Mukundan’s system. The committee, led by the Director of the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences, D. Nagaraja, concluded that BEOS was unreliable as an investigative tool and should not be used as evidence in court. The Directorate of Forensic Sciences immediately rejected the experts’ conclusion and reaffirmed its commitment to quack technology.
When BEOS or narco-analysis are mentioned in the media, they are invariably referred to as “scientific tests’. I’d like to know what exactly is scientific about drugging people and prompting them to babble by asking leading questions. From the incoherent ramblings thus produced, officers pick and choose what they please. Arun Ferreira, accused of links with radical left wing groups, stated Naxalism in
If they’d stuck to established forensic tools like fingerprinting and DNA matching, they could have charged or absolved the trio with authority. DNA profiling is not something outlandish from episodes of CSI, it’s incredibly easy and inexpensive. A town near Tel Aviv uses it to fine dog owners who fail to clean up behind their pets. All pooches are brought in for mouth swabs, creating a database against which unscooped poop is compared.
Perhaps the most novel defence of narco-analysis has come from IPS officer turned civil rights activist Y. P. Singh. He argues it reduces the chance of detainees being tortured for information. Isn’t that a great option to give arrested suspects in a liberal democracy: do you want your body bashed or your brain addled? I believe the investigating officer usually fills in the answer: both of the above.