Brain Privacy: Neurotechnology is Coming For Your Brain
As neurotech becomes mainstream, discussing brain privacy is essential
After reading Prof. Nita Farahany's book "The Battle for Your Brain - Defending the Right to Think Freely in the Age of Neurotechnology", I became fascinated with the topic of brain privacy. (Prof. Farahany will be my guest at the next Women Advancing Privacy event. Join our live conversation on April 27th)
While reading the book, two issues caught my attention from the beginning.
1) First, technology and tools that I assumed were either unavailable or in the early research stages are, in reality, already commercially available.
Some examples: did you know that, in some places, job screening can involve neurotech to test cognitive and emotional characteristics? And that, in China, some train conductors already wear brain sensors throughout their work day?
For more examples, I invite you to watch Prof. Farahany's presentation at the World Economic Forum in January this year, especially the first 3 minutes, where she shows an animation illustrating a potential neurotech-powered dystopic future.
2) Second, neurotechnology is not a niche anymore: powerful tech players are investing billions in it and expecting to have mainstream adoption in the next years.
As an example, Meta is developing "third generation smart glasses" with a 'viewfinder display' and neural interface smartwatch - hoping to launch it in 2025.
Last year, Snap bought NexMind, which "utilizes a wearable headband with a built-in electroencephalogram to detect and read neural activity in the cortex."
According to Muse's website, their "sensors will passively measure your brain activity, heart rate, breath, and body movement" and give you real-time audio feedback to improve your meditative practice."
Neurotech is already happening, and discussing brain privacy is an urgent matter.
When we talk about brain privacy or mental privacy, we are talking about the ability to block third parties from accessing, collecting, processing, and using data from our brains, our thoughts, and our mental processes.
According to Marcello Ienca, "a right to mental privacy would protect individuals against the unconsented intrusion by third parties into their brain data as well as against the unauthorized collection of those data."
It seems obvious that nobody should be accessing our thoughts, mental processes, and information about our brains. Intimate, friendly, casual, or professional interactions rely on our ability to carefully choose what to disclose to others and what to keep to ourselves.
Also, an essential part of being human means being able to think freely, having the autonomy to change our minds, having political ideas, religious beliefs, and so on.
Freedom of thought, cognitive liberty, and brain privacy - concepts that Prof. Farahany dissects in her book - are essential for human dignity, there is no doubt about it.
Differently from other data-intensive practices, neurotech has some peculiar features that make a nuanced discussion about brain privacy so important and necessary at this moment.
There will be cases in which a neurotech device can save lives or drastically improve someone's life quality.
Road accidents are a common occurrence around the world, and some of them are caused by fatigue or other mental states of the driver. If, for instance, a neurotech device could prevent a sleepy bus driver from causing an accident, dozens of lives could be saved.
Neurotech devices can also empower people to discover more about themselves and take care of their health. Prof. Farahany recounts how her neurotech device helped her treat her migraines.
There are also devices that could help with the early detection of degenerative diseases or the advanced warning of an epileptic seizure. For some people, these interventions could mean more years alive or more quality of life.
On the other side of the spectrum, neurotech devices can quickly be adopted by employers as surveillance tools, denying human dignity and autonomy to employees during and after their work hours, as well as by governments who want to persecute political dissidents and so on.
In my view, one of the most important aspects of the debate about neurotech and brain privacy is taking autonomy into consideration from two main perspectives.
First, if an individual wants, and the technology is available, they should have the right to learn more about themselves and their mental states, prevent diseases, have a more proactive take in the detection and management of health issues, and so on. Regulation of neurotech should not be so stringent or paternalistic to the point of denying people the right to learn more and act upon their health if they want.
Second, when any neurotech device is officially authorized, there should be robust legislative and regulatory frameworks to make sure that, from the early phases of research until launch and on an ongoing basis: data protection principles and rules and data subjects' rights are being observed; privacy and human dignity are being respected; and everyone exposed to the technology is aware, informed and has their autonomy respected.
The discussion of brain privacy is complex and nuanced, and, at the same time, necessary and stimulating. And this is part of what makes privacy a fascinating field.
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🎤 Upcoming events
In the next edition of 'Women Advancing Privacy', I will discuss with Prof. Nita Farahany her new book "The Battle for Your Brain: Defending the Right to Think Freely in the Age of Neurotechnology," as well as issues related to the protection of cognitive liberty and privacy in the context of current AI and Neurotechnology challenges.
Prof. Farahany is a leader and pioneer in the field of ethics of neuroscience. This will be a fascinating conversation that you cannot miss. I invite you to sign up for our free live session and bring your questions.
To watch our previous events (the latest one was with Dr. Ann Cavoukian on Privacy by Design), check out my YouTube channel.
Today I am excited to launch the second episode of The Privacy Whisperer Podcast, in which I spoke with Gal Ringel, the CEO of Mine, about:
His journey as an entrepreneur and his transition from cybersecurity to privacy;
How Mine expanded from B2C to B2B;
The advantages of data mapping in a privacy compliance strategy;
AI, security, the evolution of the privacy industry, and more.
If you are involved with privacy, do not miss this thought-provoking conversation, listen now.
And who should be my next podcast guest? Write to me and let me know.
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See you next week. All the best, Luiza Jarovsky