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It’s 2035. As you head out for work, you’re sure to grab your BSH – Brain Security Hat – before heading off to work. The hat has become part of the cultural image of anyone who works in a field with sensitive, proprietary information; as it protects your brain against brain hackers.

Does that sound like the opening scene of some dystopian science fiction novel? Well, considering recent developments in brainwave sensing technologies, the idea of a future where a person’s brain can be hacked is a worthy one to consider.

Why?  Because the concept of “sensing” brainwaves is fast becoming a mainstream activity in modern society. EEG technology has been around for years, but what is the nature of that brain activity, and the electrical signature at the scalp that it produces?

If metal electrodes can detect them, then why couldn’t a remote device as well? What could those signals tell someone about what you are doing, thinking, or what your intentions are? In this article, we’ll talk to a board certified neurologist, an information systems expert, and a former CIA neuroscientist, to better understand whether there could be a future threat where hackers may one day attempt to remotely “hack” into your brain.

I will spoil the plot for you – it is possible for someone to hack your brain, and if you make it down to the interview toward the end of this article, you’ll see why.

Controlling Things With Your Brain

The popularity of actually using brainwaves for a practical person really hit the mainstream once toy manufacturers started to capitalize on the technology.  A perfect example of this technology was the brain-controlled helicopter called the “Orbit” produced by a company called “Puzzlebot”.

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While watching someone control the toy may give the appearance that the person is intentionally “controlling” the craft with their mind, the reality is that toy manufacturers are simply making use of the levels of existing brainwaves to sense how hard someone is concentrating. Puzzlebox CEO Steve Castellotti explained this concept to the Huffington Post in 2013.

….if you’re doing math homework or translating to a foreign language or any sort of steady, sustained train of thought, there’s a rhythm like someone beating on a drum. We can pick that up from the electrical signal and use that to fly the helicopter.

In other words, it doesn’t matter what you’re thinking, only that your thoughts are very focused on one central thing.

Of course, during this same time period, especially throughout 2012 and 2013, this whole concept of using elevated brainwaves signifying “focused thought” to control toys hit the mass market. During this time, some examples of the toys that came out included:

  • Star Wars Science Force Trainer or the Mindflex collection of toys — both of which allowed you to control the movement of a small, lightweight ball.
  • Neural Impulse Actuator developed by OCZ Technology, provided Windows PC game developers with a “brain-computer interface” to incorporate brainwaves into computer software.
  • MindSet, by NeuroSky, was an EEG headset that also allows developers to develop software based on brainwave inputs.

NeuroSky, the developers of MindSet, also released a set of silly-looking fuzzy cat ears called Necomimi that would move in response to the wearer’s “emotions” (you can’t make this stuff up!)

While these toys are fun novelty items, sure to entertain kids (and maybe even adults) for hours, what are the ramifications for the future? Are these “brainwaves” useful for more than just determining whether someone is experiencing “focused” thought, or could you learn more about a person’s thoughts with such sensors?

Sensing Psychology and Emotion

According to Dr. Decontee Jimmeh, a board certified neurologist at the Norwood Clinic of Brookwood Medical Center, the EEG-sensed electrical activity can actually reveal interesting information about a person’s brain and their personality. However, instead of simply “listening” to a person’s brainwave patterns, Dr. Jimmeh explains that you can gather important information about a person’s “neurobehavior” by observing brainwave patterns in response to specific events.

Similar to EEG, evoked potentials are also recordings of the brain’s electrical activity. However, evoked potentials are produced by a stimulus (e.g. visual or auditory stimuli) instead of the spontaneous recording obtained through EEG. […] These recordings, even smaller than EEG and evoked potential waveforms, are time-locked waveforms following a stimulus and its corresponding neurobehavioral response.

While this information won’t tell you exactly what a person is thinking, nor will they reveal specific psychological conditions 6 Mind-Blowing TED Talks About Psychology & Human Behavior 6 Mind-Blowing TED Talks About Psychology & Human Behavior The human brain is complex and confusing, which explains why human behavior is so complex and confusing. People have a tendency to act one way when they feel something completely different. Here are a few... Read More , they could help you predict how they would probably act in response to certain stimuli. It could provide you with an entire set of “personality characteristics” that would allow you to predict exactly how a person will probably react to any given situation — essentially their psychological “personality”.

…there is anecdotal evidence that patients with depression can have certain timed recordings with lower amplitude (i.e. P300 waveform). Emotions originate from deeper, more primitive areas of the brain, such as the limbic system. However, they reach our conscious through the cortex. Therefore, theoretically, scalp electrodes can record waveforms related to feelings.

Currently, sensing these brainwaves requires electrodes with skin-contact, but what would be required to remotely sense these brainwaves?

Brain Hacking?

To get a better idea of the technology behind “brainwave-reading” devices, like the toy manufacturers use today, we sat down with Dr. Adriane Randolph, a professor at Kennesaw State University, and the founder and Director of the University’s BrainLab. At BrainLab, Randolph has been exploring the cutting edge of brain-computer interfaces (BCI) and how they can be used to assist people who are home-bound, such as people with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

Dr. Randoph’s BrainLab recently developed a BCI for Google Glass that allows users to trigger swipe and select events through thought alone.

In this 2011 TEDx talk, Randolph describes the human brain as the “ultimate remote control”.

Randolph explained that there’s already an existing effort called “neuro-marketing” being explored by businesses who want to get a better sense of consumer response to products by using neurological indicators, rather than what the consumer actually says about the product.

It’s basically using neuro-physiological tools to get inside of the mind of the consumer. Traditionally, we’ll put you in a focus group and ask you a bunch of questions, but there are so many biases that can come into that, where your conscious brain takes over and colors your responses. However, we can get to your gut reaction through monitoring your brainwaves, monitoring your eyes to see where you’re looking, watching your pulse, and all of these other ways that our bodies give us away.

Dr. Randolph explained that the research-grade technology utilizes a “bathing-cap” looking apparatus covered with electrodes that touch the scalp, all fed back to a “bio-amplifier” via a serial cable.

eeg1

The bio-amplifier is what provides researchers with a clearer version of the very low-amplitude brain signals picked up from the scalp. Dr. Randolph described how researchers can identify specific actions or behaviors by looking at which frequency of brainwave Program The Binaural Beats Of Your Brain With Gnaural Program The Binaural Beats Of Your Brain With Gnaural Every music fan knows a good tune can change your mood, but is it possible for sounds to actually alter your brainwaves? Believers in binaural beats think so. They claim these sounds, when listened to... Read More is changing at any given time.

For example the signal that’s related to movement, the Mu [wave], is around eight to thirteen hertz.

According to Randolph, one of the most significant problems with sensing such low-amplitude signals from the scalp, is that the sensors are so sensitive, they’ll also pick up electrical activity in the room at other frequencies, such as the 60 hertz signal coming from your computer monitor, or the electrical outlets in the room. That signal needs to be filtered out by the hardware and software doing the brainwave analysis.

Some people go as far as building what are called Faraday Cages […], but we’re working on real-world applications, and most of us don’t go around wearing a copper cage…

Do Brainwaves Provide Useful Information?

The bigger question of course, is whether or not it’s possible for anyone out there — be it a futuristic brainwave-hacker What Computer Technology & The Internet Will Look Like In 20 Years [Opinion] What Computer Technology & The Internet Will Look Like In 20 Years [Opinion] Ever since the Internet took off in the 1990's, technological developments have moved with dizzying speed. Over the next two decades, technology is set to expand even more, into areas which are either exciting, scary... Read More , or some government agency looking to use brainwave hacking as a new form of surveillance — to actually extract useful data about a person’s intentions or thoughts, by sensing a person’s brainwaves?

Many people before us, much smarter than I, have already mapped out the areas of the brain associated with things like movement, visual attention, judgement and similar things – but that’s the first layer. The second layer comes from people who for years have been doing signal processing, filtering and different algorithms. [….] If you know where to look, you don’t necessarily have to create one of those things [algorithms] yourself.

However, Dr. Randolph also explained that it isn’t as simple as extracting that information out of someone’s entire brainwave profile.

brainwaves

Researchers still need a “targeted” approach to scan the right areas of the brain in order to get more detailed information about what’s going on there.

I’ll do exploratory work where I’ll scan the whole brain while somebody is doing something like watching a video, then I’ll look at what areas are “lighting up” the most. From that, I’m able to say, “Ah, okay those are the areas associated with language, attention, cognitive load, or movement, and then try to make sense out of what their thought process is. The asterisk in this is, it’s all correlational – you can’t say that since that area is lighting up, then that is what they’re doing or that’s what they’re thinking. It’s likely, because of those past algorithms I talked about, but the field is very touchy about saying that we can know these things with “certainty”.

Dr. Randolph described the approach as trying to hear a single person in a stadium full of people. If you place the microphone in the middle of the stadium, you can barely hear the person amongst all the noise, but if you give the person the microphone to speak into, you can hear them clearly.

stadium

This is similar to where sensors are placed on the scalp, in relation to how clear the signal is from that area of the brain, and the value of the information you are capturing.

The bottom line of all of this is that the current state of the technology requires as many electrodes as possible to be placed as close to the area of the brain where the activity is occurring. The further from the brain you get, the less likely you are to obtain useful data. When asked whether she knew of any research into “remotely” sensing the same data as the electrodes are cable of, Dr. Randolph described that there is probably a heavy interest for that type of technology today.

I do not doubt that there are people thinking about it, but I think the issue right now is completing the electrical circuit. To read that electrical activity, the most important thing is getting a ground to complete that path. So you do need to somehow touch the scalp. […] Guger Tech has s “Sahara” dry electrode system, but it still needs to touch the scalp. I’m not currently aware of anything currently that does not touch the scalp in some way.

When asked whether there is any approach or technology available that might be able to sense those electrical impulses on the scalp Plugging In Your Brain and Body - The Future Of Implanted Computers Plugging In Your Brain and Body - The Future Of Implanted Computers With the current trend of technical innovation and advancement, now is a good time to explore the state of the art in computer-human technologies. Read More from a distance, Dr. Randolph replied:

You’d have to speak with an electrical engineer, but from the edge of my field of knowledge, there are different types of voltmeters and electron spectrometers out there, where you can hold them in the room and see if there is electrical activity, but that is such a rough reading. However, I feel like it wouldn’t be such a stretch to think that someone could potentially refine that to make it more sensitive. [….] I wouldn’t say it’s impossible, but I don’t believe that’s where the efforts are.

The bottom line is that scientists haven’t gotten to the point where they can fully decode someone’s thoughts. The requirement for this would be mapping to a database listing brain activity patterns associated with specific feelings or thoughts, but according to Dr. Randolph, that’s the next step, and we aren’t there yet.

That’s a huge leap that we have to make, and we’re getting there as far as processing and storage, because that’s what’s needed to build this huge pattern-matching system. However, I don’t think that there’s as much of a drive [right now]. I think a hacker would have to be motivated. When we do get to the point where we can get something really good off somebody’s brain, then it will be of great consequence. Because, if the President is using such a system and transmitting wirelessly from some sensor, then somebody is going to want to hack into that.

Reading Your Thoughts – A Spy’s Dream

Where academic science leaves off, usually the fringe researchers within government labs around the world pick up. This is especially true with brainwave research. 

According to Dr. Christopher Green, Neuroscience Professor and Clinical Fellow at Wayne State School of Medicine, and a former CIA scientific analyst, there is already existing research showing the successful “extraction” of real data from a person’s brain using brainwave analysis.

dr-green2

Dr. Green pointed out experiments conducted by researchers at Oxford, Berkeley and the University of Geneva  in 2012, titled On the Feasibility of Side-Channel Attacks with Brain-Computer Interfaces, where researchers were able to successfully extract ATM pin codes from a subject’s mind.

Dr. Green explained:

The briefing highlight[s] the ATM & the “recovery” of pin-codes from bankcards. The subject stands at the ATM, and is consciously [thinking] the numbers in his/her mind, and the signals are recovered from “Side Channel” (electrophysiological jargon) intercepts. Fatal Flaw: there are much easier ways to do the same…although this works IF (small ‘if”) one has prior EEG data from the target…”reading” or “looking” at a known list of words, numbers, and so on. This step will not be necessary if the above research occurs, however.

According to Dr. Green, the material from the above study was briefed repeatedly to agencies like DARPA and CIA, and the research was “exceptionally well-received”.

What is impressive is just how close it appears that this cutting-edge research is to being capable of analyzing the raw brainwaves of a subject and interpolating literal thoughts from those patterns. That’s not twenty or thirty years away, according to Dr. Green.

I am certain [the research] was continued to some extent, which extent I do not know. I can say that the research (in my opinion) would take 5 years and several million dollars (not tens of millions), because the work is proceeding apace at other labs than Oxford, Berkeley, and Geneva…and could have been leveraged. The issue; who wants it? What real value would it be?

In fact, this ties in to Dr. Randolph’s point that commercialization of such technology might take a faster pace, if someone out there could identify any real value in the ability to hack into a person’s mind. The real value, it appears, is not in the commercial sector, but in the world of intelligence.

These currently existing technologies are both brilliant and scary all at the same time. One can only imagine what exists inside the world of classified brainwave data-extraction research, and what it means for “brain privacy” in the future?

Do you think that once brain researchers are able to understand specific thoughts from brain patterns, that it’ll represent a security threat? Is such “fine-tuning” of brainwave analysis even possible? Share your own thoughts in the comments section below.

Daniela Sachsenheimer/Shutterstock,Alila Medical Media/Shutterstock, Dziurek / Shutterstock.com, Dr. Christopher Green Image Courtesy of Dr. Green

  1. Mike
    August 15, 2016 at 5:52 pm

    The US Navy has a patent for doing exactly this dating back to the 1980's. As the patent reads, not only can they scan the brainwaves remotely, they can "make a desired change" within those brainwaves, and scan them BACK.
    Proof is in the patent library....look it up.

  2. Keith Gatling
    September 3, 2014 at 12:51 am

    That's why I never thought that ESP was bunch of crap...it was simply picking up the signals from someone else's brain.

    But think about it...if this does become a reality, you'll never have to wonder if the girl you have a crush on likes you. On the other hand, you have to be really careful what you're imagining about her, or she may slap you.

    Funny thing is that now that I think about it, when I was younger I operated on the premise that ESP may well be real, and that I should watch what I thought about girls I liked, just in case I happened to run into one who knew what I was thinking about her, and didn't like it.

  3. Keith Gatling
    September 3, 2014 at 12:35 am

    Not quite so far-fetched, and I'm not surprised by it at all. Anyone read Asimov's "I Robot," and remember the story about the robot who, by some fluke, was able to read people's minds because he was able to pick up the wavelength that their thoughts were broadcast on? And do you remember the dilemma this put that particular robot in when it came to the Three Laws of Robotics?

    So I've been pretty much expecting this since about 5th or 6th grade, which is to say for almost 50 years.

    • Ryan D
      September 3, 2014 at 12:39 am

      Thanks Keith. You know, what's interesting is I think that the perspective about things like this can vary depending on age group. While I might not have been in the 5th grade 50 years ago, it was over 25 years ago for me, so as an 80's child there were all of the sci-fi movies based on those old sci-fi novels that I'll bet you read as a kid.

      I think that our generations, having read and dreamed so much about these potential future technologies, are now looking at these innovations and nodding -- it wasn't so much a matter of "if" but "when". I feel like you...this kind of thing was really inevitable.

  4. Hanson
    September 2, 2014 at 1:08 am

    How long are ppl going to be impressed by "mind control" headsets? Aren't you more than a little tired & suspicious of these tease articles? Then you get the mind control YT videos which also hint at something else but always wind up making your eyes roll with disgust & disbelief. The latter are made to invoke that response while mimicking right wing fear & doom delusion & psychosis.

    These are made mainly by PR salesmen whose purpose to force you into that response. There is no secret message, there are only appearances and the truth behind them which is: we are putting the truth in your face & then undermining same with mountains of BS in the next breath. IOW, horrendous things are being done beyond anything revealed so far by Ed Snowden, AND, you are not going to find out how or why on You Tube. But these creep videos do feed you hints without proof. Snowden has that but anyone familiar with PR double talk can figure out that "the impossible" as talked about on this site has long been made routine. Hint: 2 way brain hacking telepathy cannot be done at random. The neural template needs to be controlled over time.
    See, "The Unpossible File" on gmail blogger.

  5. John Williams
    September 1, 2014 at 7:56 pm

    Time to start building the Faraday Cage then .....
    Anyone know a good supplier of copper mesh?

    Incidentally - tin foil is just useless cheap aluminium. If you insist on a foil hat instead of the correct fine copper mesh, you should use Mumetal. The hat should be reassuringly expensive, like Stella Artois and big, as big as possible - think sombrero.

    • Ryan D
      September 1, 2014 at 8:01 pm

      Funny! You make a good point though.

  6. Mishal Alexander
    September 1, 2014 at 10:56 am

    Man! Now I'm a bit skeptical about the future! After all the advancements that we have today, all I have got to myself was my thoughts and now even they are in cliff-hanger! #puzzled

    • Ryan D
      September 1, 2014 at 7:59 pm

      Crazy isn't it? Ironically "tin-foil hatters" is a common term used now for conspiracy theorists heavily into making up all sorts of crazy "government spying on us" garbage - yet the spooky part is that, as you can see from the research cited, the science is there and people are interested. One day we may all be wearing "tin foil hats!" ....or as John correctly describes in his comment..."copper mesh hats"!

  7. dragonmouth
    August 30, 2014 at 12:18 pm

    And people laugh at me for having a foil hat liner.

    • Ryan D
      August 30, 2014 at 3:19 pm

      Excellent! A fellow tin-foil hatter? We should chat some time about your favorite interests in the tin-foil hatter field!

  8. Br Nathan
    August 29, 2014 at 8:43 pm

    I think that this article could be added to Bullsh!t Wiki best of: bullshit.wiki/Main_Page

    • Ryan D
      August 31, 2014 at 4:55 pm

      Any particular research/study listed in the article that you disagree with? Results from the Oxford research were pretty clear - researchers successfully extracted ATM codes.

    • hanson
      September 2, 2014 at 5:48 am

      The gee wiz teasing behind sensationalized articles concerning "mind control" (that include ads by Silver Mind Control) are tiresome after years and years of articles on headsets & MRI scans for blood flow imaging. I think smart ppl with large funding have been there & done much better long ago. Equally tiresome are comments about mesh hats to protect against hacking of banking PIN #'s. They are not about humor or snark. These are fake and deliberate, IMO.

      (I remember a Michael Hasting article about military PsyOps being used on visiting US politicians in Iraq. The comments were filled with toxic threats against MH by ex-military in addition to what looked like fake gibberish comments by pretend psychotics mixed in with coherent remarks. A lot of threats & willful deceit just b/c the article mentioned mind control & included criticism of the PsyOps guys in Iraq. An apparent no no.)

      Kinda like the pretend YT anti-mind control videos on YT cranked out by the thousands...and the fake comments that support them. Most of the videos & the comments are made by PR pros imitating paranoia with a few by the insane or gullible mixed in. That has to be "my opinion" b/c most ppl just dismiss them as lunacy for lunatics & there's no proof that says otherwise. They appear to be diversion by formula. Diversion from what? If what I say about these videos being made by play-actors is true, and it is, you can infer the rest using the probable in place of proof.

      It can then be said, "you means the conspiracy videos are all one big conspiracy? Golly, buy some tinfoil medication."
      Overly snarky but that it could be put that way. I pled not guilty. I am not in the private or public intel biz but anyone familiar with intel double think PR & BS mentioned above might be able to see what I'm saying.

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