Perspective: Beware! Hackers Can Now Steal Ideas from Your Brain Waves

(Eunyoung Song, PhD, Duke University) –  Reading thoughts from your brain waves is not just science fiction anymore. Researchers from the University of Oxford, the University of California at Berkeley, and the University of Geneva have published a study in which they successfully revealed personal data like PINs and bank information through brain waves. The brain waves are monitored by Brain-Computer Interface (BCI)-based products. BCI is a system that reads brain signals and uses them to control external devices (SciPol brief available). Most of these BCI products record brain waves using a technique called electroencephalography (EEG) from a headset with built-in electrodes. These wearable EEG devices are becoming more popular for video games, sleep tracking, meditation training, and other applications. Companies including Emotiv, MUSE, NeuroSky, and Neuroon, offer these devices for the price of a few hundred dollars.

In the study, an EEG headset from Emotiv was used, which is available on the market for $299. While 28 participants wore a consumer-grade EEG headset, images of ATM machines, credit cards, maps, pictures of people, and a series of random numbers were presented on a computer monitor. The images were present for only 250 milliseconds, which was not long enough for participants to be aware of them. An EEG is made up of rhythmic electrical potentials generated from a group of neurons in the brain. The researchers monitored these voltage changes as the images were presented. Then, using a machine learning algorithm called classification techniques, the brain waves captured by the BCI device were analyzed based on the peak and frequency parameters of the voltage changes. Researchers were able to guess the correct answer in 20 percent of experiments for the research participants’ credit card providers, PINs, and persons known to the participants. Thirty percent of the participants’ addresses were predicted exactly. Also, 60 percent of participants’ birth months and thirty percent of their bank ATMs could be found. This study suggests the possibility of brain data hacking in the near future wherein an unidentified user could gather your private information directly from your brain waves while you are using these devices for entertainment. It might be time to figure out how to encrypt our brains.

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