"Do not attempt to remove the goggles. Any attempts will be noted and punished. Do not attempt to remove the gloves. Any attempts will be noted and punished. Do not attempt to dislodge the headwear. Any attempts will be noted and punished. Prepare for Scenario 288 in 10 seconds... 5, 4, 3, 2, 1."
Being locked inside a hostile virtual reality simulation easily ranks among the worst nightmares invented in our century. Today we have strict laws regulating the use of locked sims, laws that are baked into hardware and enforced by severe punishments. Locked sims have very few legitimate uses outside of specialised therapy, but unfortunately they have plenty of illegitimate uses, interrogation being foremost among them.
Records from the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) indicate that the first use of locked interrogation sims dates back to 2019. Following the fifth bombing in a series of domestic terrorism attacks in North Carolina, FBI agents detained a suspect who they believed had aided the bombers. This suspect was not responsive to the legal interrogation techniques of the time, and with physical techniques such as waterboarding prohibited by Congress in 2018, the FBI decided to test out a new, experimental procedure.
The suspect was fitted with a set of modified Oculus virtual reality goggles and gloves, along with a galvanic vestibular stimulator to artificially alter their sense of balance. This system was powered by the FBI's computing cloud to provide a highly immersive simulated environment.
So far, so mundane: any rich person could afford the same setup.
However, the FBI also fitted the suspect with a portable brain scanner, allowing them to closely monitor the suspect's reactions to a simulation of their supposed meeting with the bombers. Any highly emotive reaction to a phrase or face would make the next iteration of the simulation focus and elaborate on those specific elements, quickly narrowing in on the ‘truth’. Uncooperative behaviour was swiftly punished by fear-inducing simulations, which themselves were refined based on the suspect’s reactions.
Over the course of 572 simulations lasting an average of eight minutes each, the FBI determined the likely locations and identities for three of the bombers. Using this information, they followed the suspected bombers and uncovered more members of their organisation, allowing the FBI to apprehend them before their planned sixth bombing in Charlotte, NC. In a much-publicised press conference following the arrests, the FBI credited the use of new “non-invasive, zero-contact questioning techniques” with saving thousands of lives. Political analyst Katy Clarke describes what happened next:
"A major terrorist threat averted thanks to a seemingly magical, non-invasive interrogation device? It wasn’t surprising that security services around the world were given carte blanche to use adaptive VR interrogation. Of course, they didn't realise that the system wasn't quite as reliable as it seemed — it turned out the North Carolina case was more of a happy accident than anything else. Too often in other cases, adaptive VR simply generated nonsense information."
Nevertheless, over the next 15 years, adaptive VR interrogation became a standard part of law enforcement agencies’ toolkits. At first it was used only to investigate major suspected terrorist attacks, but it ended up trickling down to much more routine and minor criminal cases. Successes were publicised and failures were covered up, resulting in an almost perfect public image.
But the severe and permanent psychological damage caused by adaptive VR interrogation also became clear over those 15 years. Even with the best will in the world, security services were not able to prevent innocent suspects from being scarred by VR interrogation. Days of locked sim interrogation frequently resulted in mental trauma. Many suspects developed a lifelong aversion to any environment or person presented in adaptive interrogations, tearing apart friendships and families.
Ultimately, there were three major flaws with adaptive VR interrogation. The first was that the crude brain-scanning technology of the time frequently placed too much weight on subjects’ innocent emotional ‘responses’ towards completely irrelevant people or places within the simulations. Secondly, as the Mossad demonstrated on numerous occasions, trained subject-antagonists could withstand hundreds of simulations by conjuring up vivid and consistent imaginary worlds with which they could fool interrogators.
Thirdly, this mode of interrogation was only as good as the people and data that were fed into it, and there were more than enough personal and political biases in the anti-terror and criminal endeavours of the time to fool the people observing the simulation.
Following Dickson vs. United States, a case that was brought before the US Supreme Court in 2033, the use of adaptive VR interrogation was ruled illegal as a violation of personal privacy, and, controversially, as a violation of the the Eighth Amendment against the use of “cruel and unusual punishments”. It was a landmark case defining the use of brain-scanning technologies for law enforcement — but it wasn't the last.