The growing fear of having your brain hacked -- for real

With all these new brain scanners on the market, it's becoming increasingly important for manufacturers to make sure they're safe.

Brain-computer interfaces, like the ones produced by NeuroSky and Emotiv, allow users to control objects and video games with their thoughts. The growing fear is that third party-developers could build apps that masquerade as games — but actually harvest sensitive information from the user. Or they could simply be hacked into from unknown external sources.


Writing in SF Chronicle, James Temple highlights the concerns:

In early 2009, hackers inserted malicious code into an Epilepsy Foundation message board that embedded flashing images into hundreds of posts.

An untold number of epilepsy patients clicked on otherwise normal-looking headlines, only to find themselves staring at kaleidoscopic animations. For a handful, the images triggered migraines or near seizures, according to reports at the time.

The episode might have represented one of the first brain hacks, a computer attack on the mind. But security researchers say it's unlikely to be the last.

In fact, as brainwave sensors for games and implantable neural devices for diseases become more common and sophisticated, a host of troubling possibilities arise. Early research suggests that hackers might be able to use these tools to extract sensitive information from our brains, like ATM passcodes. From there it's not too far a leap to triggering physical movements or perhaps even inserting ideas.

"You could use these to directly interact with the brain," said Ryan Calo, assistant law professor at the University of Washington focused on privacy and robotics, in a recent presentation at Stanford. "You could get up to all sorts of mischief."

And indeed, a number of security experts say the time has come for manufacturers to protect consumers from these sorts of threats.

There's lots more in Temple's article, including a UC Berkeley study in which researchers were able to use such devices to predict the thoughts of computer science students.


Inset image: Batou from Ghost in the Shell: Innocence — as his e-brain is being hacked into.

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