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Neurosecurity Concerns In Neural Implant Tech

Neural implants are now becoming more important in medical research. Devices like the iPlant to program your own brain and the neural implant for communication raise interesting possibilities to help people. However, a recent paper details some of the consequences of having an electronic device implanted below the surface of your conscious mind.

In their paper, Neurosecurity: security and privacy for neural devices, Tamara Denning, B.S., Yoky Matsuoka, Ph.D., anD Tadayoshi Kohno, Ph.D. of the University of Washington, present their case for special safeguards in electronic brain implants.

Security vulnerabilities have already been discovered; in 2003, a hacker demonstrated that cardiac defibrillators could be compromised wirelessly.

The authors present a number of scenarios that are realistic depictions of what might happen with technologies being developed today. Malicious persons might interfere with life-saving implanted technologies or prosthetic devices; individuals might even be tempted to reprogram or otherwise tweak their own devices.

Neurosecurity will probably face technical challenges that are dramatically different from those of traditional computer security applications. It is easy to ask a computer user to make security decisions in response to pop-up windows; in contrast, it would be difficult to ask the users of neural devices to make rapid meta-decisions about their own brains.

Furthermore, the consequence of a breach in neurosecurity—where human health and free will are at stake—is very different from a breach in com- puter security, where the victim is a computer on a desk. Due to the elegant yet little-understood plasticity of the neural system, changes made by hackers could have ir- reversible effects on human performance and cognition.

In his newly published novel WWW: Wake, sf author Robert J. Sawyer tells the story of Caitlin Decter, a blind teenager who participates in the Internet with the use of assistive devices.

When she gets the opportunity to have a special implant that might, with the help of a small external computer, help her to see, she jumps at it. However, her device (cleverly called an "eyePod") is "hacked" by an unexpected entity. She develops "websight":

Although each part of the Web she was was unique, it all followed the same general pattern: colored lines representing links, glowing circles of various sizes and brightness indicating websites...
(Read more about Sawyer's websight)

Science fiction readers have no trouble imagining (with the help of our favorite authors) the kinds of mischief that malicious persons could get into by hacking brain implants or the devices that service them. I'm sure readers could think of other examples.

Read more in Neurosecurity: security and privacy for neural devices (pdf) and Wired; thanks to Moira for the tip on this story.

Scroll down for more stories in the same category. (Story submitted 8/1/2009)

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