Tech that can spy on our brains is coming

Privacy news
3 mins
Bird's-eye view of a brain seen through military binocular vision.

Almost ten years ago, Facebook launched its facial recognition tool, which could identify people in photos uploaded onto the platform. Since then, we have seen the technology adopted at airport border security, on our mobile devices, and even on concert tours.

The sudden pervasiveness of facial recognition has disconcerting implications for our privacy, and rolling back the technology already in place will be difficult, not just because of governments and companies’ insatiable appetite for mass surveillance, but also because it’s simply made our lives more convenient.

So when news broke that Facebook is developing brain-computer interfaces that would allow us to scroll hands-free through the ad-stuffed hellscapes otherwise known as our News Feeds, it was hard not to feel a foreboding sense of déjà vu about a once novel piece of tech becoming embedded in society.

The promise of brain-computer interfaces

Brain-computer interfaces (BCI) are devices that allow communication between your brain and a wired device, which detects neural activity and interprets those electric signals into, for example, basic emotions. These devices can’t currently plant thoughts and emotions in your head, but they can help improve neural activity around damaged nerves—a common example of this is a cochlear implant. BCIs can be surgically implanted or simply worn on top of your head like a loose swimming cap.

These devices are typically used to stimulate neural activity to treat medical conditions like Parkinson’s disease and tremors, but they have also been used experimentally in novelty gaming headsets to control virtual objects.

But can BCIs figure out what you’re thinking? On a basic level, yes. Researchers recording electrical impulses from your brain and muscles can determine whether your nerves are functioning normally and how you might be feeling, but it can’t pinpoint why you’re feeling that way. For instance, the BCI can tell when you’re feeling hungry, but not what exact food you’re craving, yet.

But they may soon be able to know more, thanks to better artificial intelligence and machine-learning software used to interpret more complex neural activity. Now, companies like Elon Musk’s Neuralink are leading efforts to bring the technology that was once limited to clinical research into the mainstream. Facebook is currently developing technology that allows people to type just by thinking, so instead of typing that Facebook rant you could just think it and post it without lifting a finger or phone. Great.

Your thoughts for sale

Advertisers already have an incentive to know who would be interested in a product being sold. Some are so good at targeting ads that people thought they were eavesdropping on them.

To understand a potential customer on a neural level would the data jackpot. It would mean learning about the most intimate and sensitive information you can get from a person so you know exactly how they feel about a product.

If your neural data were paired with the trove of personal data a company like Facebook has, it would create an incredibly nuanced profile of how you interact with the platform. And as long as advertisers are willing to pay for it, you can be sure that the data will be collected to the fullest extent.

It’s not going to happen overnight, though. The non-invasive version of this technology currently relies on you putting on a very visible neural cap linked up to a computer in order to read your brain’s activity, but Facebook and Neuralink want to make this connection to a computer more seamless. Neuralink in this case is aspiring to build flexible “threads” that can be implanted into your brain to allow you to control your devices by thought alone.

BCIs going mainstream would certainly benefit millions of people with extensive nerve damage  by giving them greater mobility. But if it’s implemented on a mass scale and we’re all using our thoughts to interact with everything around us, we risk losing the last remaining refuge of privacy we have—our thoughts.

Potentially invasive and, so far, unchecked

The pace at which the technology is advancing makes the advent of commercial BCIs possible within the next decade, and the allure of greater convenience in simply thinking things into happening will no doubt play a massive role in its marketing. But like with facial recognition, the current lack of oversight and insufficient legal restrictions at both commercial and federal levels will make the technology ripe for abuse in mass surveillance systems that would be virtually impossible to reverse.

In George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, “nothing was your own except the few cubic centimetres inside your skull.” Not even in the most chilling dystopian novel was there complete eradication of privacy to one’s thoughts.

Ceinwen focused on digital privacy, censorship, and surveillance, and has interviewed leading figures in tech.