Sep 21, 2019

Brains are the last frontier of privacy

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Brain–computer interfaces, once used exclusively for clinical research, are now under development at several wealthy startups and a major tech company, and rudimentary versions are already popping up in online stores.

Why it matters: If users unlock the information inside their heads and give companies and governments access, they're inviting privacy risks far greater than today's worries over social media data, experts say — and raising the specter of discrimination based on what goes on inside a person's head.

What's happening: Machines that read brain activity from outside the head, or in some cases even inside the skull, are still relatively limited in the data they can extract from wearers' brains, and how accurately they can interpret it.

  • But the tech is moving fast. We can now recognize basic emotional states, unspoken words and imagined movements — all by analyzing neural data.
  • Researchers have found similarities in the way different people's brains process information, such that they can make rough guesses at what someone is thinking about or doing based on brain activity.

"These issues are fundamental to humanity because we're discussing what type of human being we want to be," says Rafael Yuste, a neuroscientist at Columbia.

The big picture: Clinical brain–computer interfaces can help people regain control of their limbs or operate prosthetics. Basic headsets are being sold as relaxation tools or entertainment gadgets — some built on flimsy claims — and market researchers are using the devices to fine-tune advertising pitches.

  • Facebook and startups like Elon Musk's Neuralink are pouring money into a new wave of neurotechnology with bold promises, like typing with your thoughts or, in Musk's words, merging with AI.
  • All of these devices generate huge amounts of neural data, potentially one of the most sensitive forms of personal information.

Driving the news: Neuroethicists are sounding the alarm.

  • Earlier this month the U.K.'s Royal Society published a landmark report on the promise and risk of neurotechnology, predicting a "neural revolution" in the coming decades.
  • And next month Chilean lawmakers will propose an amendment to the country's constitution enshrining protections for neural data as a fundamental human right, according to Yuste, who is advising on the process.

A major concern is that brain data could be commercialized, the way advertisers are already using less intimate information about people's preferences, habits and location. Adding neural data to the mix could supercharge the privacy threat.

  • "Accessing data directly from the brain would be a paradigm shift because of the level of intimacy and sensitivity of the information," says Anastasia Greenberg, a neuroscientist with a law degree.
  • If Facebook, for example, were to pair neural data with its vast trove of personal data, it could create “way more accurate and comprehensive psychographic profiles,” says Marcello Ienca, a health ethics researcher at ETH Zurich.
  • There's little to prevent companies from selling and trading brain data in the U.S., Greenberg found in a recent peer-reviewed study.

Neural data, more than other personal information, has the potential to reveal insights about a brain that even that brain's owner may not know.

  • This is the explicit promise of "neuromarketing," a branch of market research that uses brain scans to attempt to understand consumers better than they understand themselves.
  • Ethicists worry that information hidden inside a brain could be used to discriminate against people — for example, if they showed patterns of brain activity that were similar to patterns seen in people with propensities for addiction, depression or neurological disease.

"The sort of future we're looking ahead toward is a world where our neural data — which we don't even have access to — could be used" against us, says Tim Brown, a researcher at the University of Washington Center for Neurotechnology.

Go deeper: Advertisers want to mine your brain

Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify Marcello Ienca's quote.

Go deeper

The wreckage of summer

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

We usually think of Memorial Day as the start of the summer, with all of the fun and relaxation that goes with it — but this one is just going to remind us of all of the plans that have been ruined by the coronavirus.

Why it matters: If you thought it was stressful to be locked down during the spring, just wait until everyone realizes that all the traditional summer activities we've been looking forward to are largely off-limits this year.

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

  1. Global: Total confirmed cases as of 3 a.m. ET: 5,410,228 — Total deaths: 345,105 — Total recoveries — 2,169,005Map.
  2. U.S.: Total confirmed cases as of 3 a.m. ET: 1,643,499 — Total deaths: 97,722 — Total recoveries: 366,736 — Total tested: 14,163,915Map.
  3. World: White House announces travel restrictions on Brazil, coronavirus hotspot in Southern Hemisphere Over 100 coronavirus cases in Germany tied to single day of church services — Boris Johnson backs top aide amid reports that he broke U.K. lockdown while exhibiting symptoms.
  4. Public health: Officials are urging Americans to wear masks headed into Memorial Day weekend Report finds "little evidence" coronavirus under control in most statesHurricanes, wildfires, the flu could strain COVID-19 response
  5. Economy: White House economic adviser Kevin Hassett says it's possible the unemployment rate could still be in double digits by November's election — Public employees brace for layoffs.
  6. Federal government: Trump attacks a Columbia University study that suggests earlier lockdown could have saved 36,000 American lives.
  7. What should I do? Hydroxychloroquine questions answeredTraveling, asthma, dishes, disinfectants and being contagiousMasks, lending books and self-isolatingExercise, laundry, what counts as soap — Pets, moving and personal healthAnswers about the virus from Axios expertsWhat to know about social distancingHow to minimize your risk.
  8. Other resources: CDC on how to avoid the virus, what to do if you get it, the right mask to wear.

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Updated 4 hours ago - Politics & Policy

U.S. coronavirus updates

Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins; Map: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios. This graphic includes "probable deaths" that New York City began reporting on April 14.

The CDC is warning of potentially "aggressive rodent behavior" amid a rise in reports of rat activity in several areas, as the animals search further for food while Americans stay home more during the coronavirus pandemic.

By the numbers: More than 97,700 people have died from COVID-19 and over 1.6 million have tested positive in the U.S. Over 366,700 Americans have recovered and more than 14.1 million tests have been conducted.