‘Brain fingerprinting’ has crime-solving potential for New Zealand, pilot study finds

20 April 2017

Forensic brainwave analysis – or “brain fingerprinting” – could add a revolutionary new dimension to criminal investigations in New Zealand, a NZ Law Foundation-backed research project led by the University of Canterbury has found.

  • Robin Palmer

    “Brain fingerprinting”, could add a revolutionary new dimension to criminal investigations in New Zealand, a NZ Law Foundation-backed research project led by Professor Robin Palmer (pictured) and Associate Professor Debra Wilson of the University of Canterbury has found.

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Brain fingerprinting measures involuntary brainwave responses that reveal whether a person recognises particular information. The testing process uses an EEG machine to measure certain brainwave responses. The person being tested selects various pre-loaded images, sentences and phrases on a computer screen. By interpreting the pattern of these brainwaves, the tester can establish if the person tested has knowledge of particular information.

The forensic brainwave analysis (FBA) technology is very difficult to manipulate. It has been used successfully in tests and court cases in the United States to help prove both guilt and innocence.

Working with brain fingerprinting pioneer Dr Larry Farwell of the USA, the FBA project team has completed a year-long pilot project into the science of brain fingerprinting. The University of Canterbury-based project team also worked with the New Zealand Police and Corrections Services, and used supervised student researchers to carry out experiments to observe, test, analyse and verify the technology.

Project team co-leaders Professor Robin Palmer and Associate Professor Debra Wilson said that although there was still much work to do, the research confirmed the exciting potential of the technology.

"The project team’s overall conclusion was that the verification experiment results provide a solid platform for further research into FBA technology, towards the goal of applying it in police investigations and the New Zealand legal system,” Professor Palmer said.

Canterbury Police District Commander Superintendent John Price said his officers found participation in the project “a very valuable experience”.

“We are encouraged by the potential of this technology to assist in forensic investigations in the future. We have a strong partnership with Canterbury University and welcome any opportunity to improve the safety of our community through improved research and knowledge based policing,” Superintendent Price said.

Law Foundation Executive Director Lynda Hagen said the Foundation was pleased to have supported the ground-breaking research.

“Brain fingerprinting is just one of many exciting new technologies with potential to transform the law and legal process. The Foundation is backing several projects linked to new technology, because we want to ensure that New Zealand law keeps up with these fast-moving developments,” she said.

The project team was led by Professor Palmer and Associate Professor Wilson of the University of Canterbury School of Law, and included project team scientist Professor Richard Jones of the New Zealand Brain Research Institute and Dr Colin Gavaghan of the NZ Law Foundation Centre for Emerging Technologies at the University of Otago.

The project, which ran from March 2016 to March 2017 assessed the accuracy and reliability of forensic brainwave analysis technology. It also researched the potential legal and ethical rights, and cultural issues that could arise from using this technology in the New Zealand justice system.

Professor Palmer, Associate Professor Wilson and Professor Jones will discuss their brain fingerprinting project in an upcoming UC Connect public lecture, titled Beyond lie detectors: ‘The brain does not lie’, at the University of Canterbury on 2 August 2017. 

For further information please contact:

Professor Robin Palmer
Phone: 03 369 3812 xtn 93812
Mobile: 0211552968
Email: robin.palmer@canterbury.ac.nz


Phil Barclay, Communications and Engagement Manager, University of Canterbury
Phone: +64 3 369 3910 | Mobile: +64 275 030 168 | phil.barclay@canterbury.ac.nz
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