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The Dangers of the 'Brainternet'

Can you hack the Internet Of Brains?
Immagine: Shutterstock

Companies like Elon Musk's mysterious Neuralink work on connecting human brains—the magnificent blobs of neurons—to the internet, the digital land of Russian cats and racism. But some experts are questioning the ethics and security of the internet of brains.

Adam Pantanowitz, a lecturer in the school of electrical and information engineering at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, said that having everybody's brains connected to the internet could pose some issues around privacy and potential hacking.


Pantanowitz, along with two engineering students, successfully streamed human brain waves to the internet on an open-source website using an electroencephalogram (EEG) device hooked up to a portable Raspberry Pi computer. They called it the Brainternet (yes, really).

Pantanowitz said researchers could use the information to study the brain waves of a large and varied amount of subjects at a time. "The idea is that eventually we're going to become more connected to the networks around us and we could eventually become Internet of Things nodes on the network ourselves," he told me. "Information can travel from our brains to the networks, and back from the network into our brains."

Though it might sound enticing to have our brains be connected to the internet the same way our toasters are, the thought of having a hacker's mitts in our minds is less so. Regular devices connected to the internet usually don't have great security measures, and can be hacked and turned into botnets for a Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack.

Pantanowitz said that this will become even more of a problem when researchers cross the frontier of "bidirectional flow of information," where data can be uploaded to a brain instead of just transmitted.

"Any sort of attack that could take over the stream and use it in a non-desirable way would be a disaster for the individual involved and, more generally, it could be a real risk for society," he said.


This isn't the first time the ethics of internet-connected brains was discussed. A 2014 study published in Frontiers of Neuroengineering highlighted some major ethical issues relating to increased brain connectivity. Similar to genetic mapping, the study said that as we can gather more personal information from the brain, the right to neural privacy will become much more significant, especially if hackers can plant information.

"If thoughts can be planted, or behavior compelled, through interfaces that send stimulation or information directly to the brain, it is theoretically possible at some point that such technology might be used without consent to control the behaviors of prisoners, for example," according to the study. "While the current state of the technology is too primitive for such use now, vigilance is imperative as this research continues."

The study also brought up the possibility that, if all our brains are connected in a big virtual mess, there might not be any room to be an individual. "Who owns thoughts generated in brain-to-brain interfacing?" the study asks.

To prevent some of the security-based issues of a Brainternet, Pantanowitz suggests creating a new network—entirely separate from the internet—for the connections. He points to China's quantum communications project—where information would be sent through entangled photons from satellites—as a potential contender. Enough of these signals would create an interconnected network, or quantum internet.

"If someone starts tampering with the information in the middle of the connection, the whole nature of the network changes," Pantanowitz said. "The whole visual appearance of the network could change to indicate an intrusion."

We might be decades away from worrying if we're secretly being Inception-ed by hackers when we connect ourselves to the internet, but for now I'd be careful about where I plug my brain. Especially weird helmets from strangers.

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