Stealing Personal Data From Someone's Brain

It sounds like something out of the movie “Johnny Mnemonic,” but scientists have successfully been able to “hack” a brain with a device that’s easily available on the open market.

Researchers from the University of California and University of Oxford in Geneva figured out a way to pluck sensitive information from a person’s head, such as PIN numbers and bank information. The scientists took an off-the-shelf Emotiv brain-computer interface, a device that costs around $299, which allows users to interact with their computers by thought. The scientists then sat their subjects in front of a computer screen and showed them images of banks, people, and PIN numbers. They then tracked the readings coming off of the brain, specifically the P300 signal. The P300 signal is typically given off when a person recognizes something meaningful, such as someone or something they interact with on a regular basis. Scientists that conducted the experiment found they could reduce the randomness of the images by 15 to 40 percent, giving them a better chance of guessing the correct answer. Of course, in order to execute this kind of fraud the user would have to be a willing participant. But should technologies like Emotiv’s interface proliferate, it would be easier and easier to perpetrate such a scheme. An unsuspecting user could be talked into playing “games” that result in their essentially being interrogated, the researchers say. And the information that the interrogators take off with would be nothing shy of the very information stored in a person’s memory. In news that doesn’t foretell a dystopian future where our very minds are ripe for robbery, the paper also nodded toward a more benign use of these procedures in law enforcement interrogation.


The point here is not to steal specific thoughts but rather to tell if a suspect is withholding relevant information or lying about an incident much more accurately than today’s lie detectors can.


Kemo D. 7

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