November 5, 2007

The future is now: Forensic applications of emerging technology

High-tech surveillance techniques are staples of science fiction books and movies such as Gattaca and Minority Report. But many once-fictional technologies are hitting the mainstream. Here are three in the news right now:

Brain scanning and lie detection

A British academic has published what he is billing as the first real-world use of fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) brain-scanning technology to investigate a criminal suspect's veracity. Sean Spence at the University of Sheffield studied the brain waves of a woman who spent four years in prison for allegedly poisoning her child. The woman was accused of Munchausen's syndrome by proxy, a highly controversial syndrome that has led to the jailings (and subsequent exonerations in some cases) of many mothers, especially in England. (Forensic psychiatrist Robert Kaplan of the University of Wollongong, New South Wales, discussed this fascinating topic yesterday on Australia's ABC National Radio show, Ockham's Razor. The episode is entitled "The Rise and Fall of Sir Roy Meadow," in reference to the leading British doctor who testified against mothers in these cases.)

Adding an extra layer of potential controversy, the research was funded by a television station and featured on the station's Channel 4 Lie Lab. The Psychology & Crime blog has some comments on the ethics, and potential limitations, of this media-funded research.

In a previous post, I provided links to online resources about forensic uses of brain scanning technology.

Routine iris scanning?

Meanwhile, in Alameda County, California, police are gearing up to scan the irises of all 2,500 registered sex offenders in the county. With sex offenders such undesirable bogeymen that almost anything goes, the sheriff's department is using them as guinea pigs to test the technology for potentially wider use in the near future.

Imagine that police receive a call about a person annoying a child. Within minutes, they arrive on the scene, whip their handheld iris scanner from their belt, and determine whether the person is a known sex offender.

With iris scanning technology projected to improve to the point that eyes can be scanned from yards away without the target's knowledge, critics worry about "function creep," or more and more widespread use that will invade people's privacy rights.

The San Francisco Chronicle has a report.

Vein pattern recognition

This is a much lesser-known technological gem that's coming to the forefront in the long-running child pornography case of R&B star R. Kelly.

Kelly was charged in 2002 with engaging in videotaped sex acts with an underage girl. He claims that his likeness may have been computer-generated, and has raised doubts about the age and identity of the girl, who is now an adult and who testified before a grand jury that she is not the girl on the tape.

Prosecutors are seeking to introduce testimony of Sharon Cooper, a developmental and forensic pediatrician, that the girl's denial is typical of victims of child pornography. As part of her testimony, Cooper wants to testify that the vein pattern in Kelly's hand is similar to that of the man in the video. The judge has ordered an evidentiary hearing to determine whether the "vein pattern comparison" test is generally accepted in the scientific community.

Law professor Colin Miller, blogging at EvidenceProf Blog, located a web site claiming that such vein pattern recognition technology is gaining momentum as one of the fastest-growing new forensic technologies. Apparently, the technology has found "easy acceptance" in parts of Asia, where there is strong resistance in fingerprinting.