Hacking the Brain

What if Russians hacked your brain?

It seems like an episode of Black Mirror or a William Gibson story. Putin’s cyber-goons take command of people via brain-implanted computer chips. We’d believe we’re operating under free will. But, in fact, the Russians are manipulating us into self destruction. Who knows. Maybe Americans would be goaded into something cartoonishly stupid, like electing a bloated orange game show host president.

This scenario isn’t as crazy as it may seem. Biotechnology and brain-computer interfaces have become increasingly sophisticated. That new tech enables amazing medical breakthroughs. But unfortunately, it also opens up new and alarming possibilities for hackers.

Our bodies already could be hacked. But the next frontier for hacking could be the brain.

Think about robotic prosthetic arms. The DEKA arm is a miracle of science for its connection between brain and machine. The fully articulated mechanical arm is powered by brain waves broadcasted by muscle contractions.

Unfortunately, it appears it’s possible to disrupt the link between the body and artificial limb. A device could intercept signals from the tiny computer chip embedded in the arm.

If the DEKA arm were hacked, and rogue outside forces could compel the arm to pummel or choke the user.

And it’s not just arms that could be at risk. A few years back, a New Zealand hacker showed the McAfee FOCUS 11 conference attendees how he hacked into an insulin pump that had a radio transmitter. He was able to control how much the pump put out. That could be very bad news for a world leader whose diet, age and weight make him susceptible to Type 2 diabetes.

Though it’s not an immediate threat, it’s plausible that brain could be remotely accessed and manipulated. Neuro-implants are used to treat diseases ranging from Parkinson’s disease to chronic pain and depression. Last year, a research group at Oxford University published a paper exploring the issue of brain implant hacking or “brainjacking” as they coined it. Though the risk of brainjacking is low, it’s better to start considering serious hacker-centric issues now – rather than when these neuro-implants are much more sophisticated – and the risk is greater.

In response to the potential of brainjacking and cranial data theft, researchers have proposed new human rights that preserve the brain as the last refuge for human privacy. This would provide legal protection for victims thought and brain function theft, abused or hacking.

Marcello Ienca, a neuroethicist at the University of Basel, and Roberto Andorno, a human rights lawyer at the University of Zurich are leading the fight for human brain privacy by proposing four new human rights policies to keep what’s inside our head property of the owner.

That’s very good news for those who want to keep their very good brains private.