How could neurotechnology be misused?

A few weeks ago, Facebook confirmed that a team of engineers and neuroscientists was researching new brain-computer interfaces. One day, thoughts should be transmitted directly from the sender to the recipient without going through the keyboard, touchscreen and microphone, according to the idea. What sounded like science fiction until recently is increasingly becoming a reality. "The risk of the misuse of neurotechnology to gain access to private data has grown significantly due to technological advances," says Marcello Ienca, doctoral student at the Institute for Bio- and Medical Ethics at the University of Basel.

Rights for self-determination

Ienca and Prof. Roberto Andorno from the University of Zurich are convinced that developments in neurotechnology call for human rights to be supplemented. To this end, the two researchers have developed four neurospecific human rights in the journal “Life Sciences, Society and Policy”: The right to mental privacy is intended to ensure, for example, in neuromarketing studies that all data that are not clearly used for the purpose of the study , to be deleted. A right to cognitive liberty is intended to prevent people from being forced to reveal neural data. "This is important because, for example, soldiers are dependent and can hardly defend themselves against abuse," explains Ienca. "The same goes for older people who are already benefiting from developments in neurotechnology today, but often fail to recognize the associated risks."

The human right to mental integrity already exists. But Ienca proposes an extension that takes into account new technological possibilities of physical or psychological injury, for example via the hacking of neuroimplants, as they are already used in Alzheimer's patients. Finally, Ienca claims the right to psychological continuity. This is to protect every person from unwanted personality changes through neurotechnology.

Neurotechnology for marketing, military and everyday life

Non-invasive technologies for measuring activity patterns in the brain, for example via electroencephalography (EEG) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), are standard in medicine today. Neuroscientists can associate these patterns with specific cognitive or physical activities.

In recent years, neurotechnology has also spread outside the clinic, for example in neuromarketing. By measuring activity in specific areas of the brain, it is possible to determine how consumers react to products and stimuli. The US Army is also interested in neurotechnology: it could monitor memory processes and the attention of soldiers in real time and treat post-traumatic disorders by activating certain areas of the brain. Corresponding ideas and experiments can be found in relevant publications.

Neurotechnological applications are also spreading more and more in the field of entertainment electronics: Companies such as Emotiv or Neurosky already offer headsets for smartphones that allow gaming and communication via electrical signals from the brain. In addition, large companies such as Samsung and Apple are currently developing the first human-machine interfaces via EEG at full speed.

Brain activity online

"Experts assume that touchscreens will be replaced or at least supplemented by brain interfaces in ten to 15 years," says Ienca. This could lead to an increasing number of data on our brain activity becoming available online. "With this, we are essentially breaking a final frontier, because the brain has so far been the last place of complete privacy," says Ienca.

In addition, according to the researchers, new gates are opening for abuse. The possibility of “brain hacking” was recently proven experimentally: Researchers at Oxford University hacked an EEG that can be bought on the Internet for under $ 200. This enabled them to gain access to the recorded brain signals of a test person and to draw conclusions about personal passwords and financial data.

Public debate needed

It would not be the first time that human rights have been adapted to new technological realities: in 1997, as a result of the decoding of human DNA and the genetic revolution that it initiated, new rights were adopted to protect personal genetic data. "We are now proposing a comparable update in the context of the new possibilities offered by neurotechnology," says Ienca. "With this we want to launch a public debate, although the expansions we have proposed are far from final."

Original contribution

Marcello Ienca, Roberto Andorno
Towards new human rights in the age of neuroscience and neurotechnology
Life Sciences, Society and Policy (2017), doi: 10.1186 / s40504-017-0050-1


Further information

Marcello Ienca, University of Basel, Institute for Bio- and Medical Ethics, phone +41 61 207 02 03, email: [email protected]