Illustration by Bilyana Ilievska
Brain-computer interface devices are essentially helmets that allow users to control computers with their thoughts. Last August, a group of researchers at the USENIX Security Symposium used this technology to extract security PINs from people’s minds using off-the-shelf BCI technology and published their findings. But Daniele Perito of the University of California, Berkeley, one of the paper’s authors, told us not to worry about our identities being mindfucked out of our heads before being transferred to a memory card and sold on the black market. Instead, this technology will mostly be used for profiling and advertising. Thanks, Daniele, we feel a lot better now.
VICE: Should we be scared that you can hack people’s brains?
Daniele Perito: We can’t make somebody do something they don’t want to do. The only thing we did was to get people to wear this helmet and hook them up to a machine, and then show them images and see if they are familiar with them by measuring their signals of recognition. From that you can infer certain information.
Ummmmmm, like people’s PINs?
We asked our participants to choose a PIN, and then we said: “We’re going to show you some numbers. At the end of the experiment, you will be asked to enter the first number of your PIN.” This basically forces them to think about the first number of their PIN, so when they saw these flashing digits, they had a higher recollection when they saw the first digit of their PIN.
Can this technology also extract information from someone’s mind?
We’ve had partial success, but our experiments were very controlled. Participants sat in front of a screen and watched flashing images, but nobody is going to do that [in real life]. Now we’re thinking of ways in which this could be made subtler, so that you could be probed for hours without realizing it.
That sounds really creepy. How does it work?
Once you see and recognize a stimulus, we can measure it. We’re trying to bring the display time low enough so that it’s barely noticeable at all, to see if the reaction is still there. This is not going to be dressed up as an attack as much as user profiling. When you’re browsing the internet, many parties are going to have questions about you—your status, your age, your gender, your mood, what you’re interested in—and we can track that.
It sounds like a very intrusive but effective advertising tool.
It’s going to be a while, but I think it is going to be much easier to get certain information like someone’s political preference or sexual orientation.
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