Every time we turn around, it seems like there’s another social network security breach or a targeted attack on cloud-based data. We’re increasingly feeling like the last place we can keep any information safe is in our own heads — but even that may not be safe much longer.
Researchers have identified a way to steal information right from our minds using a device that wraps around the skull and can read brain waves to extract data like PIN numbers and places of residence.
The researchers, hailing from the University of Oxford, University of Geneva and UC Berkeley, use the “brain hacking” device to retrieve PIN numbers like this: Study participants first memorized a four-digit PIN number, then put on special electroencephalography (EEG) headset, which record electrical activity along the scalp, and watched as the numbers 0 through 9 flashed on a screen before them. The EEG device then scanned for P300 waves, known to be emitted when thinking about something meaningful.
Similar tests were conducted to infer participants’ birth months, banks and places of residence, as well as familiar faces. Because they knew which images the participants’ P300 signals related to, researchers were able to figure out sensitive information with 15 to 40 percent more accuracy than merely guessing. (A PDF of the study can be found here.)
True, the study’s accuracy rate isn’t huge, and the “hack” works only if someone’s wearing Emotiv Systems’ EPOC Neuroheadset or a similar device. But the point of the study was to demonstrate the feasibility of hacking into a human brain.
Startups have been testing out cheap “mind-reading” video games and toys, and there soon could be a day when household devices could be controlled by thinking with a headset.
If that technology becomes popular, ne’er-do-wells will begin thinking of ways to steal data from our brains just as they steal from our computers today. Thankfully, benevolent academics are trying to think a step ahead of the hackers.