Is ‘Brain Spyware’ In Our Future?

An excerpt from “Future Crimes.”

The following is an excerpt from Future Crimes by Marc Goodman. 

A number of technologies are taking us ever deeper into the workings of the human mind, in particular functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), a noninvasive test that uses strong magnetic fields and radio waves to map the brain and measure changes in blood flow as proxy for cerebral activity. In a groundbreaking experiment at UC Berkeley, neuroscientists were able to use fMRI to allow them to reconstruct the faces people were looking at based solely on patterns of their brain activity and what they were seeing in their mind. In another case, at Carnegie Mellon University, researchers used fMRI to correctly and repeatedly perform “thought identification”—identifying the object a person was thinking about, such as a hammer or a knife, merely by reviewing his brain scan. This and other studies led IBM to predict that by 2017 limited forms of mind reading would no longer be science fiction.

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Already any number of commercial ventures have been formed to leverage the business opportunities afforded by “thought identification,” including at least two companies focused on using fMRI in lie detection, No Lie MRI and Cephos. Their tests are bolstered by the Harvard professor Joshua Greene, whose research suggests the prefrontal cortex is more active in those who are lying, a useful thing to know for police. While neuro-ethicists ponder what it all means, law enforcement officials are already attempting to use the results of brain scans in criminal cases around the world. In India, a woman was convicted of killing her ex-fiancé with arsenic after a brain scan “proved” she had experiential knowledge of having committed the crime. Of course in American courts, under the Fifth Amendment, defendants cannot be forced to testify against themselves, but how does that reconcile with fMRI technology? At present, the criminal accused can be compelled to surrender DNA and blood samples, so why not “brain samples”? As the technology improves, we can certainly expect to see requests for “brain warrants” increasing as courts call their next witness—your mind—to testify against you.

Of course if doctors, scientists, and cops have access to a technology, it’s a sure bet Crime, Inc. is not far behind, and it has been quite curious to know what’s on your mind. We can expect hackers to start first by attacking neuroprosthetics, just as they did with other implantable medical devices such as pacemakers and diabetic pumps, by attempting to subvert their communications and control protocols. For instance, an attacker might be able to turn off the stabilizing electrodes of a deep-brain stimulator in a Parkinson’s patient, which could lead to the resumption of violent tremors or grand mal seizures. Moreover, if two researchers at the University of Washington can communicate telepathically and even send motor-muscle stimulation signals over the Internet to cause another person to involuntarily move his body with a mere thought, what would prevent any malicious third party from hacking such a system and doing the same? While you were using your ultra-chic biosensor EEG  to play Pong, move objects on the IoT, control your quadcopter drone, and snap a photograph with Google Glass using the awesome power of your mind, what would inhibit a third party from remotely dialing in and doing the same? As we have seen time and time again throughout this book—absolutely nothing.

Future Crimes


It may already be starting. In 2012, researchers from Oxford University, UC Berkeley, and the University of Geneva demonstrated it was possible to carry out an attack against wearers of consumer-grade EEG headsets such as the Emotiv to pilfer sensitive personal information. While wearing the headsets, researchers flashed subjects photographs of things like ATM machine PIN pads, debit cards, and calendars. Underneath the images were questions such as what is your PIN code and when were you born? The results were powerful: by reading the brain waves emanating from these $300 headsets, researchers were able to figure out a subject’s PIN number with 30 percent accuracy and her month of birth with 60 percent accuracy. The results are profound because they were obtained with increasingly popular consumer-grade biofeedback EEG devices (not fMRI machines). Both Emotiv and NeuroSky have app stores where users can download third-party apps, just as we do for our mobile phones. But given the vengeance with which Crime, Inc. has attacked phone app stores and seeded them with malware and fake apps, how long will it be before it uploads “brain spyware” to these new online marketplaces? But as we shall see, your brain cells aren’t the only part of your biology that may be under attack.

Excerpted with permission from Future Crimes, by Marc Goodman. Copyright 2015 Marc Goodman. Reprinted with permission from Doubleday, a division of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group

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About Marc Goodman

Marc Goodman is author of Future Crimes (Doubleday, 2015) and founder of the Future Crimes Institute in San Francisco, California.

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