If These Brain Scanners Don't Raise Your Red Privacy Flags, Nothing Will

Brian Fung

Two interconnected things are about to happen. First, despite all the data that advertisers, businesses and government have already collected on us so far, that stock of behavioral knowledge is about to grow tremendously. The second and slightly more urgent thing is that Congress is about to lay down some new rules that will affect our online privacy.

In theory, the latter is supposed to address the former. But I’m finding it hard to wrap my mind around the scale of the problem -- perhaps in part because the mind is the problem.

The New York Times yesterday reported on a series of wearable brain-interface technologies that hope to allow humans to control external devices -- tablets, phones, robotic arms -- with their thoughts. They’re further along in development than you might think, though still crude:

Researchers face twin challenges: The receivers have to be able to select the right outputs out of all the brain signals being read; once the signal has been received, the headset has to know how to interpret it. This, of course, requires brain-interface devices to gather large amounts of data, particularly since they’re not very sophisticated yet.

Not all of it is useful right now. But much in the way that quantified-self devotees record every step they take and every bite they eat just in case it reveals something about them later, it’ll become an irresistible impulse to save and analyze brain readings no matter how meaningless they may seem to us now.

In fact, we’re already decoding vast amounts about the value of specific brain functions. When a person’s prefrontal cortex lights up before they take a course of action, a 2007 paper published in Current Biology found, it’s a reliable indicator of their intent to complete a task. This kind of brain-scanning has the potential to reveal a person’s hidden emotions and could even lead to advances in lie-detection, according to John-Dylan Haynes, a neuroscientist at the Berlin Center for Advanced Neuroimaging and the study’s lead author.

The "ability to reveal covert mental states using neuroimaging techniques could potentially lead to serious violations of ‘mental privacy,’" Haynes wrote in the journal Nature. "Development of this area highlights even further the importance of ethical guidelines regarding the acquisition and storage of brain scanning results outside medical and scientific settings."

Put another way, how businesses collect and use brain scans in a decade will be just as central to policy debates as what businesses do now with Internet browsing behavior. That’s what makes many of the debates taking place in Congress over privacy so important. The effects of legislation on cybersecurity (CISPA), cybercrime (CFAA), intellectual property (SOPA and PIPA) and electronic surveillance (ECPA) aren’t limited to everyday technologies; they also set the precedent for how future reams of data will be handled. Much of that information will be gathered from devices that haven’t been invented, and may be used in ways we’ve not dreamed of yet.