Tapping Brainwaves: Will Our Brains Soon Be Hackable?
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”.
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 , 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?
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.
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 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 , 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.
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.
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 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. 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.