Researchers at Edinburgh University fear brain scans – already used in some death row trials in the US – could be used by police to determine whether a suspect is lying, or has planned a crime they have yet to commit.
Brain scanners – already an effective tool in diagnosing disease – are advanced enough to determine people's likes, dislikes, anxieties or fears. When viewed through a scanner, different areas of the brain "light up" when they function. This can be interpreted to read an individual's thoughts and determine whether, for example, a person likes or dislikes an image they are being shown. At present there are no guidelines on how brain scan information should be used or what protections should be in place.
Dr Burkhard Schafer, of Edinburgh University, said if left unregulated, scanners could threaten people's privacy. He will discuss his views at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Glasgow today.
He believes the scanners could be used by employers to test the honesty of an individual's CV or by commercial companies to analyse the subconscious preferences of their consumers.
Dr Schafer – who works in the SCRIPT Centre for Research in Intellectual Property and Technology at the university – said: "After data mining and online profiling, brain imaging could well become the next frontier in the privacy wars. The promise to read a person's mind is beguiling, and some applications will be greatly beneficial. But a combination of exaggerated claims by commercial providers, inadequate legal regulation and the persuasive power of images bring very real dangers.
"The task ahead is not just to ensure that the use of brain imaging in courts or by other decision-makers is scientifically sound and reliable. We also need to ensure that the law protects what is the innermost core of our privacy, our thoughts, deepest wishes and desires, from unwarranted intrusion."
He will be joined by fellow experts to debate whether cutting-edge brain imaging could be exploited to read people's thoughts and preferences. Researchers also warn that scans could reveal undiagnosed brain conditions and that repeated scanning might even carry health risks.
The two-day event is part of a programme hosted and funded by the Institute for Advanced Studies.
Professor Joanna Wardlaw, professor of Applied Neuroimaging at Edinburgh University, said: "Once outside the medical or scientific arena, the use of imaging is completely unregulated.
"Is it right that someone should be convicted of a serious crime, or let off, on the basis of evidence coming from brain imaging? We don't think the technology is ready for that yet, but we need an open and frank discussion to decide where we go next."