New technology is raising the tantalising prospect we can see inside the minds of terrorists and other criminals. Is it just science fiction?

“In our society, we have no major crimes,” says Police Commissioner Anderton in Philip K. Dick’s 1950s classic Minority Report, “but we do have a detention camp full of would-be criminals.”

In the dystopian sci-fi story (that became a Hollywood blockbuster starring Tom Cruise), crimes are predicted by a trio of “pre-cog mutants” so that officers from “Pre-crime” can step in to detain aspirational felons before they strike.

Now a test for “guilty knowledge” being scrutinised by Australian counter-terrorism experts could bring “pre-crime” a step closer to real world policing.

The technology on which the test is based has been widely researched and performs well in the lab. But the commercial version, dubbed “Brain Fingerprinting”, is dogged by claims that its high-profile creator, a Harvard-trained neuroscientist, has oversold it.

And even if its scientific bona fides are established, legal experts are worried that acting on the test’s findings could threaten the very pillars of our criminal justice system.

The basic technique is, in fact, relatively uncontroversial with a scientific pedigree that has chalked up over a thousand peer-reviewed articles.

The “P300 Concealed Information Test” uses EEG to measure brain waves (with headgear reminiscent of one of those 1950s floral bathing caps).

It exploits the fact that when people recognise things meaningful to them among miscellaneous bric-a-brac, their EEG blips with a “P” wave, like the Matterhorn sprouting from the Alps, roughly 300 milliseconds later.

In an era of heightened fears of terrorism, and the difficulty of policing “lone wolves” and covertly radicalised youths, it’s not hard to see why P300 has law enforcement all a-quiver.

Read the full feature in the Sydney Morning Herald here