IEET > Rights > Vision > Fellows > PrivacySurveillance > CyborgBuddha > Wrye Sententia
Brain Fingerprinting: Databodies to Databrains

While in some respects, the sheer proliferation of information and data means no one particular entity can control it, current applications of technological monitoring are allowing governments to compile extensive “databodies” of individuals. Whether criminal or not, anything from a fingerprint to an intercepted e-mail can be tracked, and more and more of what we say and do is recorded. The global trend, in terms of personal data, is toward total monitoring.

Exponential advances in the capacity to sift information have dramatically altered who and what is monitored, and who and what monitors us, on a global scale. Far from the three separate kinds of surveillance—physical, psychological and data—described by Alan Westin in his seminal Privacy and Freedom (1967), today’s surveillance—aided by electronic and computer technologies—aims to achieve a fused web of total control. Today, physical surveillance is digital data, and psychological control, an off-shoot of technological capability.

Michel Foucault, Louis Althusser, and others like them, have documented how, historically, mechanisms of power (the state, employers, etc.), interpellate private citizens as “good” or “bad” subjects. Today’s Ideological State Apparatus (ISA) and Repressive State Apparatus (RSA)1 are ITAs and RTAs—Ideological Technological Apparati and Repressive Technological Apparati. The rapacious recording of information enabled by large-scale data trawling technologies makes personal surveillance, in many cases, a default mechanism of so-called “legitimate” monitoring by governments and corporations. These new networked technologies, in addition to older, more traditional forms of available and authorized data scrutiny, make bodies go cold under all-pervasive dataveillance.2

Any number of current technologies show the tendencytoward rapid, total control. ECHELON, the US National Security Agency’sglobal communications monitoring system, currently has the capability ofintercepting and processing millions of private communications.3And Carnivore, the FBI-favored electronic eavesdropping apparatus, iscapable of collecting private information under the guise of protectingAmericans.4 Face recognition systems—similar to the one used atthe 2000 Super Bowl—are now capable of making more than 1 millioncomparisons per second, based on algorithmic identity recognition and arebeing implemented in a number of contexts.5 The US government’snational Automated Fingerprint Identification System makes rapid queries onfingerprints—up to 1000 matches a day—drawn from its centralized printdatabase and, CODIS (the Combined DNA Index System) operated by the FBI, hasthe same in view for DNA data. While ostensibly, these surveillanceapplications are focused on criminals, the broad interpretation of “suspects”can lead to an erosion of civil liberties.

Whereas, at least in the US, the government is bounded bycertain constitutional privacy protections, many private companies can anddo extensively monitor their employees—both their persons and their bodyfluids. Eighty-one percent of large companies now require some form of drugtesting as a condition of employment.6 And, it is estimated thatthe United States spends $1 billion annually to drug test about 20 millionworkers.7 In a 1999 report, the American Management Associationboasts that two-thirds of major American companies monitored their personnelvia video, voice-mail and e-mail messages. And, the Privacy Foundation inDenver, Colorado estimates that worldwide, the number of employees underInternet or e-mail surveillance is 27 million (7/09/01).

Banking of our personal information is no news to privacyadvocates and activists.8 All of these applications, in additionto the widely acknowledged and oft-lamented accumulation of consumer recordkeeping and sharing of remote info-banks, means greater vulnerability of ourprivate, personal information. In other words, with each passing day,government and private companies compile and construct an amazingly thorough“databody” of each of us.

The control of data now extends beyond cataloguing andrecording communication volleys, or patterns of consumption, to tracking thevery thoughts that make possible our diverse actions—our databrains.

Data-Terrain of theHuman Brain

After the Human Genome Project to “map” human DNA, wenow have the “Human Brain Project,” (HBP) an internationallyorchestrated research project which hopes to—among other things—providea blueprint on “normal” brain activity.9 Aside fromassumptions implicit in deciding what constitutes a normal brain, the HBPdoes offer potential benefits for understanding brain functions, and willundoubtedly alleviate some people’s suffering as this understandingpercolates into healthcare praxis. The HBP’s intention to “map”cognition, however, points to the trend whereby the possibility forautonomous, unrestricted thought may become threatened by its ownsimulations.

An “eigenface” is a composite face made up ofgeneric, algorithmic features used to make identity comparisons inface-recognition surveillance technologies. An eigenface is a mathematicalaverage—a face map of pixels. “Eigen,” from the German word for “own”or “individual” seems cruelly ironic in this usage, as the purpose ofany given set of eigenfaces is to categorize people according to a limitedset of facial characteristics. Alexander Pentland, an MIT “perceptualcomputing” researcher says that:

Since no two people on this planet of more than 4 billion [sic] look exactly alike, you might think that there must be millions of ways in which faces differ from one another…actually [faces]  vary according to a mere 100 factors…each face is a unique mixture, but it’s a mixture of only 100 things, at most.10

In fact, most face recognition “hits” are describedby a mere 20 factors. Identifying someone based on a discrete mathematicalset of facial characteristics relies on assumptions about features that tendto occur in tandem—in other words, if a person has one of thesecharacteristics, he or she has them all.

What will an “eigen-brain” be like? Face recognitionsoftware relies on massive “facebases” of actual face photos that arethen “normalized” and “averaged” to extract a set of eigenfaces thatserve as pixel maps for face-matching “hits.” UCLA’s Brain MappingCenter—a first phase of the Human Brain Project—relies on a similarstrategy—construct a massive database of individual brain features andfunctions, then “normalize” and categorize. John Mazziotta, director ofthe Center explains the initial project:

We’re trying to build a representative atlas of the human brain, similarto the one we might have for the Earth… Except instead of looking upaverage rainfall and population, we’ll be looking up average blood flowand neurotransmitter density.11

Even while Mazziotta describes his part of the HBP in theneutrally inflected terms of a meteorologist or statician, this kind ofknowledge has often been used to fuel better exploitation of a givenenvironment.

Maps are powerful socio-spatial organizers andpotentially menacing control mechanisms. The ostensible and non-paranoidpurpose of a map is to guide or navigate, but repeatedly throughout historyand continuing today, territorial maps have been used to facilitate bettercontrol, easier conquest of a given place/people.12 And, whilethe idea of a mapped brain may seem ludicrous given our brains’ operativecomplexity and our limited understanding of how the brain works, the factthat a world-wide team of HBP scientists and specialists are, or shortlywill be, working to track and record composite patterns of thought isindicative of the trend towards brain monitoring. If guidelines and patternscan, as proponents of the HBP hope, be overlain to “map” typical brainfeatures and attendant thought functions, these guidelines could mean lesscognitive liberty and more mental street signs, more data-mindsurveillance.

Approaching a BigRed Stop Sign: Brain Fingerprinting

Developments in brainwave measurement have led to severalnew applications based on the monitoring of brainwaves. One suchapplication, which the inventor says can evaluate whether or not aparticular person has a memory of a particular event, is called brainfingerprinting. Brain fingerprinting is a computer-based memory testingtechnique developed and patented by Dr. Larry Farwell. Farwell’s techniqueis based on measurements of electronic impulses in the brain, or MERMER(Memory and Encoding Related Multifaceted Electroencephalographic Response).Ostensibly, brain fingerprinting’s primary application will be in criminalinvestigations. So far, according to Farwell, 120 brain fingerprint teststhat have been administered, including tests on FBI agents, tests for a USintelligence agency and for the US Navy, and tests including actual crimes.But, so far, brain fingerprinting has only been admitted in a single courtcase.13

Farwell uses an interactive computer-based test thatemploys visual stimuli and EEG monitoring to detect whether or not theperson being tested has a memory of particular words or pictures. To dothis, the person is wired to an EEG and watches various pictures displayedon a monitor. When the person recognizes something as significant, the brainemits a specific, measurable response. If, for example, a record of a crimeis stored in the subject’s brain, says Farwell, this response will appearwhen the subject sees items from the crime scene displayed on the monitor.

While brain fingerprinting is still in its infancy, thepotential for exploitation in a number of governmental and civil contextsmakes this new technology of important consequence for anyone concerned withthe protection of personal, autonomous thought.

Fingerprinting: Then and Now

The first prosecution based on fingerprint evidence tookplace in London in 1905 giving birth to what is now the mostfrequently used form of forensic identification. Furthermore, fingerprintsare routinely taken by US police every time an adult is arrested, for anycrime. Once the fingerprints are taken, many of these prints are kept onfile, forever, in the $640 million dollar, centralized, AutomatedFingerprint Identification System (IAFIS) maintained and monitored by theFBI.14 While this is a daunting aspect of criminal recordkeeping, it is well known that fingerprinting is no longer restricted tojuridical contexts. Countless governmental agencies, corporations, banksetc., rely on fingerprinting for identification purposes. Wade D. Hobbs,Jr., Director of the Association to Stop Unconstitutional Fingerprinting,stresses that:

In recent years, several of the [US] states have implemented schemes that require a fingerprint for a driver’s license…Similar schemes have also been established, such as those that require a fingerprint for a cab driver’s license, for a professional license, for a gun license, for welfare benefits, for Medicaid, or for an immigration card. Some 40 million people at least have been fingerprinted under the driver’s license schemes alone. The number is much higher if the other schemes are included.15


Similarly, since 1985, DNA profiling has becomeincreasingly prevalent in forensic investigations and, since 1988, DNAsamples have increasingly been admitted in criminal trials. Today, all 50 USstates have DNA databanks. Canada and a number of other countries maintainsimilar DNA databases.16 According to the US government’sNational Commission on the Future of DNA Evidence, an integrated trackingsystem for DNA samples, will, by the year 2005, allow the directtransmission of test data between laboratories based on a combined DNAindexing system (CODIS).17 On August 1st, 2001,Attorney General John Ashcroft announced that states will receive federalfunds—$30 million—to reduce the massive backlog in collected DNA samplesin order to more quickly implement CODIS on a national scale.18And, by 2010, writes the National Commission, miniaturized instrumentationand on-the-spot crime scene analysis, will be linked with remote DNAlaboratories such that “rapid identification, and in particular, quickelimination of innocent suspects” based on DNA sampling, will becommonplace. 19

As with fingerprinting, DNA testing is also being appliedin an increasing array of non-criminal contexts including: theidentification of anonymous corpses where samples can be gathered fromskeletal remains of missing persons and compared with samples from familymembers of the missing person (as with the recent deaths at the World TradeCenter/Pentagon); the US military uses DNA profiles in place of traditionalmeans of identification such as “dog tags,” and new recruits nowroutinely supply blood or saliva samples used to identify them if killed inaction; medical scientists use DNA testing to determine the likelihood offamily members inheriting genetically transmitted diseases; anthropologicalscientists do DNA testing to study evolution by examining ancient skeletalremains, and to learn about human migration patterns to determine wheredifferent races originated and diversified. And, DNA is commonly used toestablish identity in paternity cases.20 While these applicationsof DNA testing are benign, or not in themselves threatening, the increasedvisibility and use of DNA samples in an array of voluntary uses makes itmore likely that expansive uses of DNA fingerprinting, and ultimately ofbrain fingerprinting, could go unchallenged.21

With brain fingerprinting, we face an erosion of privacyand autonomy to an even greater degree as the potential for monitoringthoughts—and conceivably compiling a “datamind” of them—becomes evermore possible. Consequently, the Orwellian concept of “thought criminals”has never been more real.

Brain Fingerprinting:  A New Method of Identification

Dr.  Farwell describes brain fingerprinting as a “crime-fighting tool” that matches evidence from a crime scene with evidence stored in the brain of the perpetrator, much in the way conventional fingerprinting matches fingerprints at the crime scene with the fingers of the perpetrator.  Farwell also compares brain fingerprinting to DNA testing, in which biological samples collected from a crime scene are matched with the DNA of the perpetrator.22 Farwell celebrates the fact that, as opposed to fingerprints or DNA samples: “The brain is always there,  planning, executing, and recording [a] crime.” 23


Farwell is correct, the brain is always “there”  — but not always engaged in crime. While a voluntary use of brain fingerprinting poses little social threat, a compelled use of this technology violates the fundamental right to cognitive autonomy and mental privacy, transgressing a number of protected constitutional liberties.

Brain fingerprinting has thus far been restricted to a handful of clinical trials and only applied in one criminal investigation.  In the one criminal case in which brain fingerprinting had been applied,  the test was voluntary but did not change the outcome of the sentence.24  While currently this (largely government funded) technology is only applied voluntarily, it is plausible that such a mental measuring device could become more widely mandated. Indeed, Dr. Farwell openly plots to make profits from his invention whose very name, brain fingerprinting plays into just such expansive applications.25 Farwell’s own documents make it clear that one of his principal aims is to have brain fingerprinting used as a standard law enforcement method¾meaning that those suspected of criminal activity would be compelled to take a brain fingerprinting test.

In every US state, a person who is arrested is compelled to have his or her fingerprints taken and a percentage of these,  depending on state laws, are redirected to the US national, centralized IAFIS data base.26


Like traditional fingerprinting, DNA sampling is admissible in court, and in a growing number of states, DNA is taken from people arrested for certain crimes and added to the US national DNA (CODIS)  data bank.27


Unlike matching fingerprints, or even DNA sampling, the use of brain fingerprinting in criminal investigations crosses the line between collecting physical evidence and the amassing of more personally private data: the very thoughts of a suspected individual.

Despite its name, therefore, brain fingerprinting is more similar to a polygraph, or lie-detector test, than fingerprints because, like a lie-detector test, brain fingerprinting attempts to assess the mental operations of an individual. In fact, brain fingerprinting does so in a far more internally invasive way. Unlike a traditional polygraph,  brain fingerprinting does not measure a physical response—breathing,  blood pressure, pulse, sweat—as indicative of a mental state, but directly  monitors brainwave activity. Furthermore, polygraph testing,  sometimes called a “psycho-physiological detection of deception examination,”28 is recognized (even by those who administer the test), to be more a measurement of interviewer intimidation than anything else: "You would be surprised how many people just confess…during interviews," says a professional polygrapher of 20 years, "the interview is just as important as the test itself."29

Yet while the accuracy of polygraphs is hotly disputed,  and polygraph results are generally inadmissible in court,30 at least one judge has ruled to admit brain fingerprinting test results as evidence in an Iowa murder case.31

If Farwell is successful, brain fingerprinting, because of its carefully chosen name, and apparent advantages over the contested physical and psychological procedures of a polygraph test, has the potential of becoming the next phase in “fingerprinting,” with a growing number of prosecutors seeking to admit brain fingerprinting test results in court.

Brain fingerprinting could potentially become a threat to unwelcome organizations or unconventional activities. Brain fingerprinting inventor, Dr. Farwell, boasts in his work with FBI Supervisory Special Agents Drew Richardson and Sharon Smith, that he has successfully used brain fingerprinting to detect whether individuals (specifically FBI agents) belonged to a particular organization or not,  and furthermore, whether or not tested individuals had participated in a “variety of specific, non-criminal activities.”32 Farwell asserts that his team of researchers was able to correctly identify a wide range of activities that individuals had (or had not) engaged in based on their brain responses.

This suggests daunting possibilities for selectively targeting “undesirable” groups in a wider social context. Just as personality tests, drug screening, and DNA fingerprinting have become more widely accepted in applications that go well beyond the scope of criminal investigations, the possibilities for brain fingerprinting in “routine”  assessments make the invasion of cognitive liberty and autonomy issues of potential significance. What, for instance, would be the consequence of an individual’s affiliation with NORML, or the Green Party in routine, “non-invasive,”  job-related brain fingerprinting screenings? Brain fingerprinting could,  in the future, be used to target or exclude individuals who manifest unwanted, unorthodox, or “subversive” mental traits.

Minding our Minds

Already privacy advocates rail against the collection and storing of personal data, and defense attorneys lament the erosion of constitutional privacy protections. And, with advances in electronic communications and computer technologies, the possible invasions of privacy are skyrocketing. While current applications of brain fingerprinting are limited and voluntary, it is possible to foresee advances—both socially and technologically—that could facilitate governments and corporations in their surveillance of thought “crimes”  via brainwave monitoring.

Fortunately, at least in the US, and at least as long as they last, a number of Constitutional guarantees present a barrier to violating the privacy of our thoughts. But preserving such protections will require ongoing vigilance. The historical progression of US legal statutes has moved away from protections of individual privacy (particularly in the War on Drugs), and so too, away from the ability to think private thoughts. When your brainwaves, and the thoughts they might reveal, become readily available for scrutiny, freedom of mind takes on a whole new meaning.




1. Ideological State Apparati is Louis Althusser’s term for those institutional controls to which individuals succumb of their own accord (schools, work,  church, etc.) and which operate indirectly in the service of state power.  Repressive State Apparati represent the overt institutions of control (police, military, etc.) to which individuals submit by reason of force.  See Louis Althusser’s essay, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” (1969). For an informed critique of Althusser’s model,  see the Critical Art Ensemble’s Flesh Machine (2001).

2. Roger Clarke defines dataveillance as “the systematic use of personal data systems in the investigation or monitoring of the actions or communications of one or more persons.” I would add, as suggested in the above paragraph, that dataveillance has absorbed other, more direct forms of physical and psychological monitoring. Read Clarke’s paper, “Information Technology and Dataveillance,” online at:

3. Jason Vest, “Listening In: The US-led ECHELON Spy Network is Eavesdropping on the Whole World,” The Village Voice (August 19, 1998); Online at:

4. The day after the World Trade Center/Pentagon events of 9.11.01, the US government pushed to have Carnivore installed with at least one major network service provider. See “Anti-Attack Feds Push Carnivore,” Wired News (September 12, 2001).

5. Read the FAQ on FaceIt® Technologies, online at: See also: Declan McCullagh, “Call It Super Bowl Face Scan I,” Wired News  (February 02, 2001); Viewable online at:,1283,41571,00.html

6. Barbara Ehrenreich, “Warning: This Is a Rights-Free Workplace,” NYT Magazine (March 05, 2000). Online at:

7. Edward M. Shepard, and Thomas J. Clifton, “Drug Testing and Labor Productivity: Estimates Applying a Production Function Model,” Institute of Industrial Relations, Research Paper No. 18,  (Syracuse, NY: 1998); Online at:

8. For more on current issues of data privacy, see: The Electronic Frontier Foundation (; Privacy International ( ); Electronic Privacy Information Center (; and the Privacy Foundation (

9. Human Brain Project, sponsored by the National Institute of Mental Health. Online at:  For an informative article on the HBP, see Jennifer Kahn’s “Let’s Make Your Head Interactive,” Wired (9.08 August 2001) 106-115.  Online at:

10. Evan I. Schwartz, “A Face of One’s Own,” Discover Magazine (December 1995). Online at:

11. Quoted in Jennifer Kahn’s “Let’s Make Your Head Interactive,” Wired (9.08 August 2001) 109. Online at:

12. The US Government already engages in profiling based on where you live and how you move about. The federal Crime Mapping Research Center (established in 1997) is dedicated to developing computerized analytic geographic profiling for criminal investigations and psychological targeting based on geographic information systems (GIS). See Chapter 6, “Geographic Profiling: Crime Mapping Futures,” in Mapping Crime: Principle and Practice, National Criminal Justice Document No.  NCJ 178919. Online at:

13. In a ruling on March 5, 2000, Pottawattamie County District Court Judge Tim O’Grady admitted Dr. Farwell’s Brain fingerprinting test of Terry Harrington as evidence in the case. The judge subsequently ruled, however, that Harrington’s attorneys had failed to prove that this and other evidence probably would have changed the outcome of his original trial. See:

14. The Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS) has been in operation since July 1999. During its first year, the system positively identified more than 5 million people, and each month, more than 8,000 criminals, arrested in jurisdictions different from their original booking locations, are uncovered by IAFIS. Since that time, approx. 600 identifications have been made involving cases that had previously been unsolved. IAFIS can handle 1,000 searches a day, and although designed to complete a fingerprint query in 24 hours, often does so within four to six hours. The FBI provides law enforcement agencies with communications equipment, encryption tools, and the proper software needed to utilize IAFIS. ( Michael D.  Kirkpatrick and James A., Loudermilk II, "Solving Cold Cases With Digital Fingerprints" Sheriff Vol. 53, No. 4 (August 2001) 14.

For the FBI’s disturbingly laudatory celebration of this new tracking system as well as other centralized identity data banks,  see interview with Mark Tanner, the FBI’s information resources manager:  “Interview: Bureau Focuses on Data Sharing,” Government Computer News (July 03, 2000); Viewable online at:

15. See:

  16. On Canada’s DNA bank, see: Joanna Kerr, “Building the Future of DNA Technology: RCMP’s DNA Data Bank Sets a World Standard” Gazette  (Vol. 62 Issue: 5/6, 2000) 21-28.

17. CODIS (Combined DNA Index System), is a national database and searching mechanism created by the FBI. CODIS is comprised of two file tracking systems: an offender file and a forensic file. The offender file contains a DNA profile for convicted offenders from state and local jurisdictions; the forensic file contains a DNA profile from crime scene evidence that has not been matched to any offender. Through CODIS, law enforcement and the FBI link unsolved cases nationally, and even internationally. CODIS is fast becoming the international standard for DNA comparisons; (Australia, Finland, Belgium, Canada, Denmark,  England, Norway, Hong Kong, Italy, The Netherlands), and a number of other countries have already implemented, or have retained the US-gifted software for implementation. See:

For more information on the scientific specifics of CODIS, see “The Future of Forensic DNA Testing: Predictions of the Research and Development Working Group” National Institute of Justice Report (November 2000). Online at:

18. “Ashcroft Acts to Cut DNA-test Backlog,” Seattle Times (August 02, 2001). Online at:

19. “The Future of Forensic DNA Testing: Predications of the Research and Development Working Group,” National Institute of Justice Report (November 2000). Online at:

20. Examples are taken from Martin O’Malley and John Bowman’s “Crime, Punishment & DNA,” Canadian Broadcast Corporation News Online (June 2001). Online at:

21. The American Civil Liberties Union has an informative FAQ on DNA Sampling & Civil Rights Issues, online at:


23. See:  www.brainwavescience.comQandABrainFinger-printing001.htm

24. See footnote no. 13.

25. Brain fingerprinting is currently prohibitively expensive. While polygraphs are in the ballpark of $300-$400, and digital fingerprinting (once the technology is purchased) costs virtually nothing,  brain fingerprinting costs begin at $350 per hour, “plus travel expenses.” Dr. Farwell estimates that a typical case might involve 15 to 30 hours of investigation and testing ($5,250-$7,000).

26. On IAFIS, see footnote no. 14.

27. According to the National Archive of Criminal Justice Data, because of the novelty of CODIS, no comprehensive figures are yet available on the specific number of arrestees from whom DNA samples are taken and stored in the national data bank (August 28, 2001).

28. See, for example, “A Comparison of Psychophysiological Detection of Deception Accuracy Rates Obtained Using the Counterintelligence Scope Polygraph and the Test for Espionage and Sabotage Questions Formats,” Department of Defense Polygraph Institute Research Division, in Polygraph, Vol 26, No. 2, (1997); or, Tuvya T. Amsel Circleville’s “Fear of Consequences and Motivation as Influencing Factors on Psychophysiological Detection of Deception,” Polygraph,  Vol 26, No. 4, (1997).

29. Douglas Mansfield quoted in Ralph Montaño’s “Lie Detector Tests Take Center Stage,” Sacramento Bee (July 23,  2001).

30. Unstipulated polygraphs are, in some cases,  admissible in court. For the opinion in a recent 9th Circuit ruling which overturned the per se rule excluding the admission of unstipulated polygraph evidence, see US v. Cordoba (9th Circuit 1997) No. 95-50492; Online at:  This opinion contains a good summary of the important Court of Appeals’  decisions on the use of polygraphs.

31. Patricia Wen, "Scientists Eyeing High-Tech Upgrade for Lie Detectors" Boston Globe (June 16 2001) (

32.Larry Farwell, How Consciousness Commands Matter:  The New Scientific Revolution and the Evidence that Anything Is Possible  (Sunstar 1999), 2.

Wrye Sententia served as a fellow of the IEET from 2005 through 2009. She also directed the Center for Cognitive Liberty and Ethics (CCLE), a nonprofit research, policy, and public education center working to advance and protect freedom of thought into the 21st century.

COMMENTS No comments

YOUR COMMENT Login or Register to post a comment.

Next entry: Medical ethics through the Star Trek lens

Previous entry: World Transhumanism