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Brain hacking for neurocomputing inches closer to reality

While we would like to think that our thoughts are personal, unique and unhackable, in reality they can be tracked and analyzed by software
While we would like to think that our thoughts are personal, unique and unhackable, in reality they can be tracked and analyzed by software

Scientists at the University of California, University of Oxford and University of Geneva found that an Emotiv neuroheadset could be used to accurately detect sensitive information like a person’s home address or PIN number. The Emotiv allows consumers to literally use their brains to control functions within specially developed games and other applications. Future uses could run to anything from ordering pizza by just thinking about it, to online banking, to corporate functions like controlling unified messaging and “brain chatting.”

The dark side is this: While we would like to think that our thoughts are personal, unique and unhackable, in reality they can be tracked and analyzed by software within the headset itself.

In the experiment, P300 brainwaves were tracked as subjects saw images of everyday things: banks, people, locations and number sequences. Some of those things happened to be meaningful to the subject. The technology was able to recognize when a person was looking at meaningful information, and consequently was able to deduce a range of personal information, including where the person lived (accurate 60% of the time), birth month (60% accuracy), bank branch (30% accuracy) and the first number of the subject’s PIN (40% accuracy).

The implications are obvious: a new, creepy generation of spyware could turn neurocomputing games and apps into tools for identity theft and extracting sensitive information from the brain. It gives a whole new meaning to the concept of thought police. There are some already on the case: at the Usenix Security Conference, researchers unveiled an experimental technology that embeds passwords for apps and games within the brain on a subconscious level, so that the person has no conscious awareness of what the password it. The brain is simply trained to, behind the scenes, apply it when prompted, presumably by a visual clue.

Meanwhile, the development of the brain-computer interface technology marches on, meaning that brain hacking and security measures will continue to be a story. There are already a number of commercial headsets used for hands-free gaming, but new devices are being developed. Recently the Laboratory for Adaptive Intelligence, part of the RIKEN Brain Science Institute, created a brain-computer interface within a non-specialized helmet made with off-the-shelf components that allows the user to create a dream-world and manipulate it with his or her mind. Call it Inception light. These helmets, which could be easily commercialized, would be used recreationally and/or used to research and treat severe psychiatric disorders, like schizophrenia. 

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