Excerpted from the first chapter of The Battle for Your Brain: Defending the Right to Think Freely in the Age of Neurotechnology by Nita A. Farahany, published by St. Martin’s Press. Copyright 2023. All rights reserved.
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Suppose you keep a written diary and wish to share a passage from it with a friend. You hand it to them and ask them to read the highlighted passage. Your friend does so and hands it back. Now imagine instead that your friend also made a copy of your diary, which they keep in a file on their desk so they can return to it anytime they want to learn something new about you, whether you intended to share it or not.
Raw brain data captured by EEG, EMG, and other neurotechnology are similar. EEG, for example, records raw brain data—delta (slow waves), theta (medium), alpha (higher), beta (higher still), and gamma (the highest, at 30–80Hz)—as well as the electrical activity of nearby muscles, electrode motion interference, and ambient noise.
This “raw” data is then fed through software that filters out artifacts and extraneous information, analyzes the brain waves, and picks out the relevant information to return to you. If brain activity is recorded and stored, that same raw brain data can be returned to time and again and mined to learn all kinds of additional insights about you—such as whether you are at risk of stroke or Alzheimer’s or ADHD. All without your knowledge. […]
We stand at a fork in the road—where the coming dawn of neurotechnology could change our lives for the better or lead us to a more dystopian future where even our brains are hacked and tracked.
“It’s happening somewhat faster than we thought,” says Howard Chizeck, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Washington. Chizeck expects that millions of people will soon be playing online games while wearing brain–computer interface devices. The operator of the game could play Twenty Questions, and measure the automatic brain reactions to what the gamer sees. “I could flash pictures of [gay and straight] couples and see which ones you react to. And going through a logic tree, I could extract your sexual orientation,” Chizeck says. “I could show political candidates and begin to understand your political orientation, and then sell that to pollsters.” This kind of probing could be accomplished through spyware by a malicious actor but could just as easily be built into popular games and technologies, allowing the manufacturers to surreptitiously collect even more data about us. […]
Also on the Forum Network: Put the public back in tech policy by Marietje Schaake President, Cyber Peace Institute
How can democratic governments and their citizens regain agency over decisions made about digital technologies?
On Cognitive Liberty
When Shoshana Zuboff coined the concept of surveillance capitalism, our personal data had already been widely commodified and our ability to claw it back largely gone. With neurotechnology, it’s not too late to protect against that same fate for our brains. We stand at a fork in the road—where the coming dawn of neurotechnology could change our lives for the better or lead us to a more dystopian future where even our brains are hacked and tracked. The choice is still ours to make.
How do we choose the right path? By recognizing a new human right to cognitive liberty. […]
Sharing our neural data creates unprecedented possibilities to solve some of the most challenging health issues we face. But it also introduces unprecedented risks to our right to our own vulnerability, which is one of the many reasons we need to explicitly define the right to mental privacy. In doing so, we can specify precisely who can track our raw brain activity, when they can do so, and for what purposes.
It isn’t too late to secure individuals a right to cognitive liberty. By recognizing a new right to cognitive liberty and defining its contours, we can enjoy the benefits of neurotechnology while preserving a space for mental reprieve.
Securing mental privacy to individuals will require us to update and broaden our contemporary understanding of the bundle of rights included within cognitive liberty in international human rights law—including mental privacy, freedom of thought, and extending the collective right to self-determination to individuals. […]
Implementation will require corporations, governments, academies, and the public to join in deliberating and defining the requirements for the responsible use of neurotechnology and neural data in society.
Find out more about The Battle for Your Brain: Defending the Right to Think Freely in the Age of Neurotechnology by Nita A. Farahany (2023, St. Martin’s Press)
And find out more about the OECD's Recommendation on Responsible Innovation in Neurotechnology and OECD work on privacy
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