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How to hack the human brain

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Researchers have demonstrated how brain-computer interface devices can be used to extract personal information from a person's mind.

Smart Planet has written about the Emotiv brain-computer interface (BCI) for the gaming and entertainment industry. The device was designed to let users play computer games or to control their computers by their thoughts alone. But now researchers show that this $299 off-the-shelf device can also be used for a malicious purpose: to hack into a person’s mind and extract information such as computer passwords and banking data.

Researchers at the University of California and the University of Oxford in Geneva tested the security risks of BCIs. They found that a person can easily reveal private information via a brain wave pattern known as the P300 response, which is present when a person’s brain registers stimuli as meaningful.

"We are interested in understanding how easily this technology can be turned against its users to reveal their private information, that is, information they would not knowingly or willingly share," the report notes [PDF].

To test this, researchers gave Emotiv devices to volunteers and placed them in front of a computer to watch random images of maps, pin numbers, banks, credit cads, etc. By tracking P300 signals as the volunteers watched the screen, researchers found that they could reduce the randomness of the images by roughly 10 to 40 percent to focus in on information that was relevant to the viewer. This made it easier for the scientists to zero in on numbers that added up to bank accounts or pins.

So what does this mean for the future of brain-computer interface technology?

Popular Science reports:

"Should technologies like Emotiv’s interface proliferate, it would be easier and easier to perpetrate such a scheme. An unsuspecting user could be talked into playing “games” that result in their essentially being interrogated, the researchers say. And the information that the interrogators take off with would be nothing shy of the very information stored in a person’s memory."

The researchers note, too that the device could be used during interrogations to better determine if a person is holding out vital information or to possibly identify an accomplice.

The study was presented at the USENIX Security conference that took place in early August in Bellevue, Washington.

Researchers say they will continue to explore possible applications (good and bad) for BCIs as their pervasiveness in our everyday lives increases.

via Popular Science

Photo via Emotiv

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Amy Kraft

Weekend Editor

Contributing Editor Amy Kraft is a freelance writer based in New York. She has written for New Scientist and DNAinfo and has produced podcasts for Scientific American's 60-Second-Science. She holds degrees from CUNY Graduate School of Journalism and the University of Illinois at Chicago. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure