Privacy and Monitoring Your Brain

By | September 28, 2019

Facebook recently announced its intention to acquire CTRL-Labs, a neural interface startup developing a wristband that can control computers and other devices. The wristband works by decoding electrical signals travelling through muscles in the forearm. CTRL-Labs will now be part of Facebook’s Reality Labs group.

The CTRL-Labs acquisition (between $500 Million – $1 Billion) kicks off the next phase of brain-computer interface (BCI) applications moving into the consumer marketplace.

There are and will be many life improving aspects of BCI devices, especially for people with disabilities, and importantly, the rapidly growing senior population in the U.S. and other countries. The U.S. in particular faces a caregiver availability crisis, and BCIs hold the promise of keeping many people with special needs safe at home.

There are also some interesting questions regarding BCI devices and personal privacy.

Who Owns Your Brainwaves?

As we’ve seen in the past with other technologies, BCI applications will race ahead of several important (and critical) personal privacy and public policy issues.

Consumer EEG devices like the Muse headband can accurately read brain waves with only four sensors. Elon Musk’s Neuralink has a more ambitious goal of implanting thousands of tiny electrodes on the surface of the brain, which can then transmit to a nearby wireless device. Research labs are investigating whether a person’s unique brainwaves could be used as a highly secure authentication method for access to computers, databases, command & control systems, homes, workplaces and more.

This rapid progress on BCI devices brings a multitude of situations to ponder:

  • Your EEG signature is unique, meaning you could be identified through your brainwaves. Who owns your EEG signature, and how will this data be used by governments and corporations?
  • Could your unique EEG signature be copied & impersonated by another person, organization, or AI program?
  • While ‘reading your thoughts’ stays in the realm of science fiction, BCI devices could be used to identify deception (aka lie detectors). How accurate would this tool be, and could there be ways to game the lie detector algorithm?
  • Can companies require employees to wear a brainwave headband at work, to monitor alertness and attention?

This last point is happening now in a several Chinese schools. Students are required to wear a EEG headband during class, and when a student’s attention begins to wander, an alert is sent to the teacher’s monitoring system (and the parent’s mobile phone). Privacy, personal freedom, mixing with government and corporate policies will play out in different countries, with likely different results. A brave new world ahead.