IEEE Technology and Society Magazine - September 2015 - 50

Brain-Computer Interface with Enhanced Privacy

Digitized
Signal
Acquisition Signal

BCI
Anonymizer

Neural Signals

Feature
Extraction

Translation
Algorithm

Malicious
Feature
Extraction

Malicious
Classification
Algorthim

Control
Messages

Extracted
Private Data

Request for Specific
Signal Components
Sensory
Feedback
Malicious BCI Application
Secured and Trusted Part of a BCI System
Potentially Compromised Part of a BCI System
Malicious Part of a BCI System
Figure 3. A simplified diagram of a BCI with the BCI Anonymizer component. Legitimate interpretation components (denoted as
solid blocks in the diagram) requests data and receives response from the BCI Anonymizer (denoted as dashed background block).

services on Android phones is offered only on condition of
allowing continuous location tracking [9]. Finally, the most
fundamental problems may be that users are expected to
fully understand what information is encoded in the data
resources they grant or deny access to, and they cannot
filter/hide private information in a resource while simultaneously making it available to an application.
We believe that for brain-computer technologies, a
combination of a technological approach and a set of policies and standards will be capable of resolving the insufficiencies of existing security practices for the consumer
products in widespread use which are most analogous
to the brain-computer technologies. We propose that the
first problem above can be eliminated by implementing
access restrictions as close to the private information
source as possible, when only a single access channel
exists. The second problem is a policy problem, not a
technical problem, and addressing it in the BCI context
is a matter of early and strong policy advocacy to ensure
the development of BCIs trusted by consumers. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EEF) is a well-known nonprofit
that works to "...defend free speech online, fight illegal
surveillance, advocate for users and innovators, and support freedom-enhancing technologies" [3]. Collaboration
between the EEF, IEEE Standards Association [2], and the
BCI developers would be a fruitful approach to establishing the necessary policies. Further, we envision that the
third problem explicitly will be completely eliminated by
removing, as much as possible, the burden on a user to
be aware of what private information is available in the

50

communication channel. At the same time, we recognize
the remaining limited vulnerabilities: our proposed technology-policy approach can only guarantee performance
when the private information encoding method is fully
known. To that end, limited protection may be achievable
by changing all properties known not to interfere with the
encoding of authorized information.

Fiction is Rapidly Becoming a Reality
It has been five decades since the discussion about
the nervous system as an information processing unit
began and almost three decades since the first warning
about possible problems when melding human brains
with external computational units. Many science fiction writers and enthusiasts followed, depicting a grim
picture of brain-computer interfaces being misused to
harm people. And now the technology is catching up
- what was once only fiction is rapidly becoming a reality. The first attacks on non-invasive BCIs have already
happened. We have focused on possible privacy issues
arising from the use of BCI technologies.
Guided by Wiener's principles of justice, we propose
that the right moment to act to prevent these issues is now.
With exocortices, we have a unique opportunity to include
safety, security, privacy, and usability considerations into
the system from the design and development phases.

Author Information
Tamara Bonaci, Jeffrey Herron, and Charles Matlack are
with the Department of Electrical Engineering at the

IEEE TEchnology and SocIETy MagazInE

∕

september 2015



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