The advancement of neurotechnology, while promising significant scientific and therapeutic benefits, also raises concerns about the increased access to brain data and what this means for individual privacy and consent.
Neurotechnology is rapidly expanding, not just within the medical field, but also to the commercial, legal and personal spheres. From merely observing and recording brain activity, the technology has now advanced to the point where rewriting brain activity is possible. And with the increased usage of neuro-wearables that track and stimulate the brain, the resulting amount of neurological data will be enormous. This raises vital questions about how extremely private and personal information will be handled while ensuring that individual rights are protected.
To address these questions, experts are calling for the urgent exploration of principles and legislation governing neuroethics. The fundamental challenges around neuroethics are these: under what conditions should it be legitimate to gain access to, or to interfere with someone’s neural activity? What rights do individuals have in relation to their cognitive processes and properties, both conscious and unconscious?
Access to neurological data is especially sensitive because of how closely linked our brains are to our consciousness. Allowing outside factors to examine our brains is almost akin to giving someone the keys to our entire being. As William Safire, a columnist and Chairman of the Dana Foundation put it: “...One person’s liver is pretty much like another’s. Our brains, by contrast, give us our intelligence, integrity, curiosity, compassion, and—here’s the most mysterious one—conscience. The brain is the organ of individuality.”
Animal experiments have already shown how manipulation of behaviour through accessing the brain is possible. For example, researchers were able to create and erase memories in the minds of mice, as well as control their actions. Behaviour manipulation has also been applied in humans, with a form of brain intervention being used to reduce the need for sleep in the military.
Unlike breaches of privacy with other kinds of data, privacy violations at the neural level could be more insidious because of the possibility of taking over someone’s agency and free will. It may be through companies using your neurological information, perhaps without your knowledge or consent, to alter your preferences in order to sell you their products. The possibility of “brainjacking” in the use of brain implants could leave users vulnerable to malicious attacks. Sensitive medical information could also be used for discrimination, such as screening out potential employees with a predisposition to dementia.
Despite the potentially dangerous ramifications of neurotech, at present there are few laws and standards that address the ethical and legal issues arising from the access and use of brain data. Existing data privacy laws may offer a framework to start with, but considerable modifications will need to made to cover neuroprivacy.
Governments and legislators have started to take notice and have introduced recommendations and bills.
Chile has already adopted a “neuro-rights” bill providing protections to neurological data in the same way it does for donated organs. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has announced its recommendations for developing standards for managing and safeguarding data collected through neurotech applications.
Aside from legislation, the introduction of ethical guidelines can help companies and researchers determine the best way forward in developing neurotech innovations. The expansion of human rights to include neuro-rights--to account for current and future impacts of neurotech--can also serve as a guidepost for establishing what developments are considered acceptable.
Even if neurotech has not yet reached the capability for the dangerous misuses experts warn about, it’s still important to consider all the possibilities that could result from this relatively new technology. It’s far better to have protective measures in place to prevent a catastrophe than to scramble to fix a problem that’s spiraling out of control. Scientific innovation is crucial to human progress, and as such should not be hampered. But to ensure our safety, and ultimately survival, it is essential that this innovation is paired with thoughtful and preemptive precautions.
Costandi, Moheb. “Neuroprivacy as a Basic Human Right”, NEO.LIFE, https://neo.life/2021/02/neuroprivacy-as-a-basic-human-right/
Other Related Sources:
Ienca, Marcello. “Do We Have a Right to Mental Privacy and Cognitive Liberty?”, Scientific American, https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/do-we-have-a-right-to-mental-privacy-and-cognitive-liberty/
“Are Your Thoughts Your Own?: “Neuroprivacy” and the Legal Implications of Brain Imaging”, The Committee on Science and Law, https://www.nycbar.org/pdf/report/Neuroprivacy-revisions.pdf
Wajnerman Paz, Abel. “Grounding Neural Data Privacy on Personal Integrity: A Neurocognitive Proposal”, The Neuroethics Blog, http://www.theneuroethicsblog.com/2021/02/grounding-neural-data-privacy-on.html?m=1