Beware the dangers of brain hacking

It may sound like fantasy but some IT experts are concerned computers may be using software to hack our brainwaves for data that could be used maliciously or illegally.

Just when you think it’s safe to be online, another technology rears its head to threaten your privacy and security.

Researchers at the University of Washington in Seattle are saying we need to act fast to implement a privacy and security framework to prevent our brain signals from being used against us, before the technology really takes off.

Electrical engineer Howard Chizeck even stated “If we don’t address this quickly, it’ll be too late.” Chizeck and fellow engineer Tamara Bonaci work at the University of Washington Biorobotics Lab. One of their projects is research into brain hacking, including how to use a brain-computer interface (BCI), coupled with subliminal messaging in a videogame, to extract private information about an individual.

Journalist Victoria Turk visited the engineers where she was shown how brain hacking works. An engineer placed a BCI on her head and sat her in front of a computer to play Flappy Whale, a simple platform game based on the addictive Flappy Bird. All she did was guide a flopping blue whale through the on-screen course using the keyboard arrow keys. While she was playing, the logos for American banks started appearing — Chase, Citibank and Wells Fargo — flickering in the top-right of the screen for just milliseconds before disappearing again.

The idea behind this is simple. Hackers could insert images like these into a dodgy game or app and record your brain’s unintentional response to them through the BCI. They could then possibly gain insight into which brands you’re familiar with, or which images you have a strong reaction to and so on.

You can see the potential problems this type of technology could create. Imagine if these “subliminal” images showed politicians, or religious icons, or sex or violence. Personal information gleaned this way could potentially be used for embarrassment, coercion, or manipulation, so it has many people concerned.

While this technology is still in the realms of medical research and science fiction, it may arrive sooner than we think into the hands of game developers and marketers. If so, you might find yourself dusting off those old board games, or reading a good book instead of spending as much time in front of a screen.