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Reading Terrorists' Minds About Imminent Attack 206

An anonymous reader writes "Imagine technology that allows you to get inside the mind of a terrorist to know how, when, and where the next attack will occur. In the Northwestern study, when researchers knew in advance specifics of the planned attacks by the make-believe 'terrorists,' they were able to correlate P300 brain waves to guilty knowledge with 100 percent accuracy in the lab, said J. Peter Rosenfeld, professor of psychology in Northwestern's Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences."
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Reading Terrorists' Minds About Imminent Attack

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  • by Ethanol-fueled ( 1125189 ) * on Saturday July 31, 2010 @11:31PM (#33099234) Homepage Journal
    Interesting post.

    That's kinda the point, though. The poseurs and morons (like the hotdog stand owners and other angry rubes who are deliberately set up by American intelligence for the sake of budget justification and media fluff) are the only ones who will justify the use of this technology and all associated make-work programs.

    The real ones who exercise more care (possibly as per your rules) never get caught until its too late.

    p.s. Congratulations, your post just earned you a one-way ticket to beautiful Guantanamo Bay, Cuba
  • by retchdog ( 1319261 ) on Saturday July 31, 2010 @11:56PM (#33099328) Journal

    The 10/12 is a new study "without advanced knowledge of the `terrorist' plans," whereas the 100% was with this knowledge. The presence of this distinction should further set the stage for skepticism about their experimental design.

    Further, they have achieved only 100% (resp. 83%) sensitivity (=true positives) with an unknown (or unreported) specificity (=true negatives) since they had no controls. What if I'm having an affair or high-stakes slightly-shady business deal in New York?

  • Re:Define 'guilty' (Score:3, Informative)

    by Rary ( 566291 ) * on Sunday August 01, 2010 @12:22AM (#33099404)

    The method doesn't look for guilt, it looks for knowledge. They use the phrase "guilty knowledge", but what they really mean is "knowledge that indicates that you're guilty". A better term would be "target knowledge".

    Basically, as I understand it, it works like this: I suspect that you have been to a particular location, so I show you a bunch of pictures of various locations. One of the locations I show you is the location I suspect you have been to, and the rest are locations that I have reason to believe you have never been to. When you see the location that is familiar to you, the device supposedly picks up brainwave activity that indicates this. That is the "guilty knowledge". It's not that you feel guilty about it, it's just that it's the knowledge that indicates that you are "guilty" of whatever it is that I'm investigating. It's the knowledge that I'm looking for.

    If there's any value to this, it could replace polygraphs (which are absolute garbage and should never, ever, ever, ever, EVER be used for anything, period). If I ask you "have you ever met Bob", where "Bob" is the ringleader of a terrorist cell, and you say "nope, never heard of him", then I show you pictures of people, including Bob, and if the device lights up to say that you recognize Bob, then I know you just lied to me.

  • This is really interesting as Rosenfeld himself has previously railed against other neuroscientists for commercializing P300 based lie detectors with claims of 100% accuracy:
    Simple, effective countermeasures to P300-based tests of detection of concealed information - J. PETER ROSENFELD,a MATTHEW SOSKINS,a GREGORY BOSH,a and ANDREW RYAN []

    "It seemed timely to investigate countermeasures to ERP-based tests also because although there have been many laboratory studies claiming 85-95% accuracy, only one field study has been published, but it reported approximately chance accuracy (Miyake, Mizutani, & Yamahura, 1993). Nevertheless, one user of these methods claims 100% accuracy and is presently attempting to commercialize them (see []). Finally, the ERP approach has now surfaced in popular novels, for example, Coonts (2003), as a foolproof method."


    "It is noted that the subjects used by Farwell and Donchin were paid volunteers, including associates of the experimenters. Our presently reported study uses introductory psychology students as subjects, more like the subjects one might find in the field in the sense of relative lack of motivation to cooperate with operators, and perhaps lower intelligence."

    The above is the original peer-reviewed paper, this review (also by Rosenfeld) below is more recent and concise: []

  • by andreicio ( 1209692 ) on Sunday August 01, 2010 @03:52AM (#33099934)

    Just to make it easy on those that refuse to RTFA, here's a key quote from it, that should answer your question and clear up things a bit:

    with electrodes attached to their scalps, they looked at a computer display monitor that presented names of stimuli. The names of Boston, Houston, New York, Chicago and Phoenix, for example, were shuffled and presented at random. The city that study participants chose for the major terrorist attack evoked the largest P300 brainwave responses.

    Yes, it's still not a perfect tool, but better than a polygraph test, and that's what they're going for. One little step at a time :)

  • I'm very skeptical (Score:5, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday August 01, 2010 @04:13AM (#33099980)

    Some people in my research team are working on P300 detection - here's how it works.

    Basically, a P300 is a peak of cortical activity recorded approximately 300ms after perceiving something you expect to perceive - it has nothing to do with emotion, as the paper says. It's about attention and expectation. A simple example is the P300 speller: letters are blinking on a screen, and you focus on the letter you want. when your letter blinks, your brain generates a P300.

    When detecting P300 with external electrode, there are several problems:

    - some people are not able to generate P300 peaks (approx 5-10% if I remember correctly)
    - the 300ms delay can vary from one person to another, even for the same person depending on the situation
    - the P300 is drowned in noise, so you have to reproduce the experiment several times to cancel out the noise
    - if you blink your eyes or contract your jaws muscles, you generate artifacts in the signal that are several orders of magnitude stronger than a P300
    - to make it work properly you have to be relaxed, in a quiet environment - that's why we generally use visual stimuli. i'm not sure where the state of the art is with auditive stimuli
    - if you drug the guy so he is calm and doesn't move, you are very likely to also affect his brainwaves, thus defeating the purpose.

    Long story short: from what I know of the subject, P300 detection on a non-willing subject sounds unrealistic to me. It's all about researchers getting fundings by putting the word "terrorist" in their research proposal, which is very sad.

  • by gutnor ( 872759 ) on Sunday August 01, 2010 @08:03AM (#33100522)
    Of course that will be limited to terrorists...

    Like in the UK, when they used anti-terrorism law to fine people that were putting their rubbish in the wrong bin [] or people with noisy children. [].
    (OK not the best source in the world but worrying regardless)

  • by alexsoko ( 1868614 ) on Sunday August 01, 2010 @10:39AM (#33101060)
    Hello, As both a) someone who works in this lab and b) someone who reads this site pretty religiously, I think I can address some of your guys concerns. 1) Specificity of questions - unlike a standard polygraph test, in a P300 CIT (concealed information test) subjects aren't asked questions as muscle movements or auditory stimuli may disrupt the electrodes ability to record P300. Instead, stimuli are presented silently on the screen and thus, if the subject 'recognizes' the stimulus he will generate a P300 whenever that stimulus is presented. However, in doing so, the list must initially be vetted with the subject who says if any of the items have specific relevance to him. (This would be like in an investigation if a police detective showed someone a list of people and asked if a POI knew any of them). 2. This isn't a 1 recognition stimulus identifies everything sort of thing. The same stimuli are shown to people literally hundreds of times and it takes a pattern of recognition to correctly identify someone as guilty. Also, there are levels of recognition. All of the responses are compared to one another to get a standard base, per each participant, of brain activity. Then each recognition pattern is compared to the pattern as a whole to determine guilty knowledge. 3. For critical information a more strict test can be performed which compares the strongest P300 to the second strongest P300. If that patters is statistically bigger then you can be certain that they have guilty knowledge of that item. 4. Several of the studies we have conducted have actually incentivized (given money) to people for trying any strategy possible to BEAT the test. 5. There ARE countermeasures for this test that you can do to try to hide your P300 responses - however this specific protocol is a COUNTERMEASURE RESISTANT TEST. Believe me, if you've thought of it - we've thought of it. 6. Yes, when using just a pure P300 analysis we don't get people with 100% accuracy. But after we adjust for countermeasure use, and analyze other behavioral and EEG data that is collected concurrently with the P300 we can get 100% accurate identification. 7. We do so without getting false positives. Like any tool in law enforcement (the polygraph, fingerprinting, etc...) it's not necessarily as important that any individual thing works as it is that of the array of tools used ONE of them catches the person. And you don't want to wrongly accuse anyone. Why our P300 research is special is because we get an extremely high detection rate with no false positives. 8. If you have more questions please respond to this comment and I will try to respond. --Alex Soko
  • Entropy at work (Score:3, Informative)

    by mangu ( 126918 ) on Sunday August 01, 2010 @10:41AM (#33101070)

    A polygraph is based on the assumption that someone who lies feels guilty about it, and thus nervous; this seems to be based on the assumption that a terrorist who's killing people in the name of Allah feels guilty about it.

    No, this method is based on the fact that the human brain is a remarkable information processing device.

    In information theory [] there's one fundamental parameter called entropy [], which can be loosely described as the "degree of surprise" in the information.

    This P300 brain wave seems to indicate the result of some calculation performed in the brain to measure the entropy in the information presented to the brain. To eliminate this response, by training, drugs, or any other method, would probably eliminate a fundamental step in the information processing the brain does.

    People often seem to think of information theory like some sort of "human science", it's not. Information theory is very different from "information technology". Information theory is a mathematical science which has been very well tested in its basic principles. It was only by applying principles derived from information theory that our modern communication devices could be developed.

    The human brain may use data processing mechanisms that we aren't aware of, but it would be very surprising if it could still work while violating basic mathematical principles like information theory. That would be like a machine that needs "2 + 2 = 5" to be true to function.

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