Whether it's our location, contact lists, calendars, photo albums, or search requests, app developers, advertising companies, and other tech firms are scrambling to learn everything they can about us in order to sell us things. Data from smartphone apps, aggregated by third-party companies, can indeed paint an eerily accurate picture of us, and data miners are increasingly able to predict how we will behave tomorrow. For example, as Future Tense blogger Ryan Gallagher reported for the Guardian, Raytheon, the world’s fifth-largest defense contractor, has developed software called RIOT (Rapid Information Overlay Technology) that can synthesize a vast amount of data culled from social networks. By pulling, for instance, the invisible location metadata embedded in the pictures our cellphones take, RIOT tracks where we’ve been and accurately guesses where we will be—and provides all of this information to whomever is running the software. Other companies are increasing the accuracy of such forecasts by comparing our travel habits against our friends’ locations.
Amid the growing popularity of data mining, governments around the world are taking action on perceived misdeeds, like the $7 million fine Google faces for collecting unsecured information. But the stakes are far higher than lawmakers realize. New consumer devices are emerging that, left unchecked, could enable violations of our personal privacy on a far more intimate level: our brains.
Brain-computer interfaces have been widely used in the medical and research communities for decades, but in the last few years, the technology has broken out of the lab and into the marketplace with surprising speed. (Will Oremus recently explored the potential of BCIs in Slate.) They work by recording brain activity and transmitting that information to a computer, which interprets it as various inputs or commands.
The most commonly used technique is electroencephalography, which is widely known as a medical diagnostic test (especially for detecting seizures) but now has more potential uses. An EEG device is typically a headset with a small number of electrodes placed on different parts of the skull in order to detect the electrical signals made by your brainwaves. While EEGs cannot read your mind in the traditional, Professor X-y sense, it turns out that your brainwaves can reveal a great deal about you, such as your attention level and emotional state, and possibly much more. For instance, the presence of beta waves correlates with excitement, focus, and stress. One brain signal, known as the P300 response, correlates with recognition, say of a familiar face or object. This response is so well documented that it is widely used by psychologists and researchers in clinical studies. The popularity of EEG devices over other brain scanning technologies, like fMRIs, stems from their low cost, their light weight, and their ability to collect real-time data.
The medical research community has long been interested in BCI technology as a means to treat patients with paralysis, like those with “locked-in” syndrome (a neurological condition that results in total paralysis but leaves the brain itself unaffected). Through a simple, noninvasive EEG headset, scientists are able to interpret signals from the patients' brains—for instance, lift left arm or say: "hello"—and relay these messages to a peripheral device such as an artificial limb, wheelchair, or voice box.
Scientists are also researching the use of BCIs to treat psychiatric disorders like ADHD and depression. In fact, in the summer of 2012, OpenVibe2 released a new attention-training game for children with ADHD. Based in a virtual classroom, kids perform various tasks like focusing on a cartoon or finding an object, while the game introduces various stimuli (a truck driving by outside or a dog barking) to try to distract them. An EEG headset measures their level of focus, and objects on screen become blurry as attention wanders, forcing them to refocus their attention.
In the last few years, the cost of EEG devices has dropped considerably, and consumer-grade headsets are becoming more affordable. A recreational headset capable of running a range of third-party applications can now be purchased for as little as $100. There is even an emerging app market for BCI devices, including games, self-monitoring tools, and touch-free keyboards. One company, OCZ Technology, has developed a hands-free PC game controller. NeuroSky, another EEG headset developer, recently produced a guide on innovative ways for game developers to incorporate BCIs for a better gaming experience. (Concentration level low—send more zombies!)
Likewise, auto manufacturers are currently exploring the integration of BCIs to detect drivers' drowsiness levels and improve their reaction time. There is even a growing neuromarketing industry, where market researchers use data from these same BCI devices to measure the attention level and emotional responses of focus groups to various advertisements and products. Scientists remain quite skeptical of the efficacy of these tools, but companies are nevertheless rushing to bring them to consumers.