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Slate: How future apps will market your brainwaves

Whether it’s our location, contact lists, calendars, photo albums or search requests, app developers, advertising companies, and other tech firms are scrambling to learn everything they can about us in order to sell us things. Data from smart phone apps, aggregated by third-party companies, can indeed paint an eerily accurate picture of us, and data miners are increasingly able to predict how we will behave tomorrow. For example, as Future Tense blogger Ryan Gallagher reported for the Guardian, Raytheon, the world’s fifth-largest defense contractor, has developed software called RIOT (Rapid Information Overlay Technology) that can synthesize a vast amount of data culled from social networks. By pulling, for instance, the invisible location metadata embedded in the pictures our cell phones take, RIOT tracks where we’ve been and accurately guesses where we will be e_SEnD and provides all of this information to whomever is running the software. Other companies are increasing the accuracy of such forecasts by comparing our travel habits against our friends’ locations.

Amid the growing popularity of data mining, governments around the world are taking action on perceived misdeeds, like the $7 million fine Google faces for collecting unsecured information. But the stakes are far higher than lawmakers realize. New consumer devices are emerging that, left unchecked, could enable violations of our personal privacy on a far more intimate level: our brains.

Reading your mind

Brain-computer interfaces have been widely used in the medical and research communities for decades, but in the last few years, the technology has broken out of the lab and into the marketplace with surprising speed. They work by recording brain activity and transmitting that information to a computer, which interprets it as various inputs or commands.

The most commonly used technique is electroencephalography, which is widely known as a medical diagnostic test (especially for detecting seizures) but now has more potential uses. An EEG device is typically a headset with a small number of electrodes placed on different parts of the skull in order to detect the electrical signals made by your brainwaves. While EEGs cannot read your mind in the traditional, Professor X sense, it turns out that your brainwaves can reveal a great deal about you, such as your attention level and emotional state, and possibly much more. For instance, the presence of beta waves correlates with excitement, focus and stress. One brain signal correlates with recognition, say of a familiar face or object. This response is so well documented that it is widely used by psychologists and researchers in clinical studies. The popularity of EEG devices over other brain scanning technologies, such as MRIs, stems from their low cost, their light weight, and their ability to collect real-time data.

The medical research community has long been interested in brain-computer interface technology as a means to treat patients with paralysis. Through a simple, noninvasive EEG headset, scientists are able to interpret signals from the patients’ brains – for instance, lift left arm or say “hello” – and relay these messages to a peripheral device such as an artificial limb, wheelchair or voice box.

Scientists are also researching the use of the brain-computer interfaces to treat psychiatric disorders such as ADHD and depression.

Reaching the consumer

In the last few years, the cost of EEG devices has dropped considerably, and consumer-grade headsets are becoming more affordable. A recreational headset capable of running a range of third-party applications can now be purchased for as little as $100. There is even an emerging app market for brain-computer interface devices, including games, self-monitoring tools and touch-free keyboards. One company, OCZ Technology, has developed a hands-free PC game controller. NeuroSky, another EEG headset developer, recently produced a guide on innovative ways for game developers to incorporate brain-computer interfaces for a better gaming experience. (If a person’s concentration level is low, send more zombies!)

Likewise, auto manufacturers are exploring the integration of brain-computer interfaces to detect drivers’ drowsiness levels and improve their reaction time. There is even a growing neuromarketing industry, where market researchers use data from these same brain-computer interface devices to measure the attention level and emotional responses of focus groups to various advertisements and products. Scientists remain quite skeptical of the efficacy of these tools, but companies are nevertheless rushing to bring them to consumers.

The information promised by these devices could offer new value to developers, advertisers, and users alike: Companies could detect whether you’re paying attention to ads, how you feel about them, and whether they are personally relevant to you. Imagine an app that can detect when you’re hungry and show you ads for restaurants or select music playlists according to your mood.

The consequences

But, as with data collected during smart phone use, the consequences for data collected through the use of brain-computer interfaces reach far beyond mildly unsettling targeted ads. Health insurance companies could use EEG data to determine your deductible based on EEG-recorded stress levels. After all, we live in a world in which banks are determining creditworthiness through data mining and insurance companies are utilizing GPS technology to adjust premiums. With these devices in place, especially with a large enough data set, companies will be able to identify risk indicators for things such as suicide, depression or emotional instability, all of which are deeply personal to us as individuals but dangerous to their bottom lines.

These problems aren’t entirely hypothetical. In August, researchers at the Usenix Security conference demonstrated that these early consumer-grade devices can be used to trick wearers into giving up their personal information. The researchers were able to significantly increase their odds of guessing the PINs, passwords and birthdays of test subjects simply by measuring their responses to certain numbers, words and dates.

Brain-computer interfaces invoke serious law enforcement concerns as well. One company, Government Works Inc., is developing headsets for lie detection and criminal investigations. By measuring a person’s responses to questions and images, the company claims to be able to determine whether that person has knowledge of certain information or events. According to one manufacturer, evidence collected from these devices has already been used in criminal trials. Although the jury is still out on the reliability of these devices, as psychics, predictive psychology, lie detectors and unreliable forensics have taught us: Voodoo convicts.

The Department of Justice’s legal opinion is that law enforcement can access any data a user provides to its cell phone company without a warrant, even if no person at the service provider would regularly see that information. This includes passive background data, such as the location of the cell towers used to complete a call. Despite their loss on a similar issue at the Supreme Court last year, the Department of Justice continues to argue that they can access months of a user’s location data stored by phone companies and, further, that they can compel these companies to provide prospective location information. The deliriously old statute controlling these law enforcement tools was passed in 1986 (though legislators such as Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, are trying to update it).

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