Thwarting the Brainjackers

Brain computer interface technology has made tremendous strides in the 17 years that we have published this newsletter. Algorithms for decoding raw brain signals have become more accurate and sophisticated over time and the range of applications has expanded considerably in neuroprosthetics and other areas of neurotechnology.

But as BCI technology gets even more sophisticated, it will become increasingly important for neural engineers and clinicians to construct safeguards that protect users from unauthorized or malicious use of brain data. While many medical device manufacturers have made progress at building cybersecurity into their devices [NBR Nov15 p1], vendors of BCI systems face a more urgent imperative to protect the sanctity of data entering and exiting a user’s brain. Since these devices have access to an individual’s thoughts, actions, and feelings—theoretically at least—there’s more at stake than there might be with medical devices accessing other forms of physiological data,

We were encouraged to see a recent article in Science by some of the pioneers of the BCI field that addresses these issues head-on. The authors, who include John Donoghue of the Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering in Geneva, Switzerland and Eb Fetz from the University of Washington, propose that any semi-autonomous system should include a form of veto control—an emergency stop—to help overcome some of the inherent weaknesses of direct brain-machine interaction. “Although we still don’t fully understand how the brain works, we are moving closer to being able to reliably decode certain brain signals,” Donoghue said. “We shouldn’t be complacent about what this could mean for society. We must carefully consider the consequences of living alongside semi-intelligent brain-controlled machines and we should be ready with mechanisms to ensure their safe and ethical use.”

The possibility of “brainjacking,” the malicious manipulation of brain implants, is a serious consideration say the authors. While at first glance neuroprosthetic systems incorporating BCI technology to restore movement or communication to paralyzed people might not seem like an appealing target, this could depend on the status of the user. A paralyzed politician, for example, might be at increased risk of a malicious attack as brain readout improves.

And as BCI makes its way into more consumer-grade neurotech products, the opportunities for brainjacking—and the need for BCI security—expand accordingly.

“The time is now to set the course and take actions to ensure beneficial and safe use for brain-machine interaction,” the authors conclude. We couldn’t agree more.

James Cavuoto

Editor and Publisher

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