Brain hacking: It’s for real

Aug 23, 2012

Brain computer interfaces, or BCIs—sounds like a fictional cyberpunk creation, the stuff of virtual reality. Not so. The technology exists and is “becoming increasingly popular in the gaming and entertainment industries” according to a paper titled “On the Feasibility of Side-Channel Attacks with Brain-Computer Interfaces.”

Consumer-grade BCI devices costs only a few hundred dollars and are used in a variety of applications, “such as video games, hands-free keyboards, or as an assistant in relaxation training,” according to the paper. “There are application stores similar to the ones used for smart phones, where application developers have access to an API to collect data from the BCI devices.”

BCIs work by enabling a non-muscular communication between a user and an external device by measuring the brain’s activities. In gaming, capturing a user’s cognitive activities “enables the development of more adaptive games responsive to the user’s affective states, such as satisfaction, boredom, frustration, confusion, and helps to improve the gaming experience.” In the medical field, BCIs have been used to gather neurofeedback on sleep disorders, epilepsy, driver alertness and sports performance.

It seems that such devices could be used more often in this increasingly information-hungry world. It would be a virtual goldmine (no pun intended) for the marketing industry.  And with that comes the downside: hacking.

The authors of the paper—Ivan Martinovic, Doug Davies, Mario Frank, Daniele Perito, Tomas Ros and Dawn Song—are concerned with the security and privacy aspects of BCIs, specifically, “how easily this technology can be turned against its users to reveal their private information.” To that end, they investigated how third party applications “could infer private information about the users, by manipulating the visual stimuli presented on screen and by analyzing the corresponding responses in the EEG [electroencephalography] signal.”

Though the authors conducted relatively simple experiments, such as trying to discover ATM pin numbers and dates of birth, they believe “more sophisticated attacks” are possible. For example, “an uninformed user could be easily engaged into ‘mind games’ that camouflage the interrogation of the user and make them more cooperative,” say the researchers.

One can well imagine governments angling for technology that would allow brain hacking, to better provide “security” for their citizens. Or perhaps one corporation could hack the mind of a competitor’s employee. The various reasons for which a brain could be hacked seems as limitless as BCIs’ potential uses.

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