Until now you have only heard of computer hacking and that can be quite scary, with hackers able to easily break into PCs and corrupt them by damaging or erasing important files and information.
What would you say if I told you that our brains may soon be hacked too?
Researchers are having sleepless nights just at the thought of the human brain being hacked. Their fears are not unfounded. They have a reason to be concerned that something like this could happen in the future.
Some of you may have read about the technology that makes it possible to operate computers through thoughts – using a wheelchair, operating a computer or accessing Twitter – all without touching anything. This is done with the use of complicated neural devices.
While advancing technology is a boon for scientists, it also bothers them. They fear that the same concepts can be used to hack the human brain, if this technology falls into the hands of wrong people. Hackers now hack computers for their pleasure. But what happens if these nefarious elements start focusing their energy on neural devices, such as electrode systems that control prosthetic limbs or deep brain stimulators that are used in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease?
A computer security expert at the University of Washington, Tadayoshi Kohno, says, “Neural devices are innovating at an extremely rapid rate and hold tremendous promise for the future. But if we don’t start paying attention to security, we’re worried that we might find ourselves in 5 or 10 years saying we’ve made a big mistake.”
Scientists have published these concerns in Neurosurgical Focus. They revealed that although, the devices that exist today are not much of a security risk, what worries them is the potential for the mushrooming of security breaches as neural engineering becomes more and more complex and widespread.
A human brain is made up of cells, including neurons. Neurons are cells that perform the function of sending and receiving electro-chemical signals to and from the brain and nervous system. Our brain consists of about 100 billion neurons.
Neural engineering is an interdisciplinary research area that uses neuroscience and engineering techniques to understand, enhance, repair, replace or treat the diseases of neural systems.
Scientists are aware that the next generation of implantable devices that control prosthetic limbs will most certainly be having wireless controls to help physicians remotely adjust settings on the machines. They feel that if security checks such as access control are not built-in, it would become very easy for an attacker to hijack the device and take control of the robotic limb.
Kohno says, “It’s very hard to design complex systems that don’t have bugs. As these medical devices start to become more and more complicated, it gets easier and easier for people to overlook a bug that could become a very serious risk. It might border on science fiction today, but so did going to the moon 50 years ago.”
For the question as to why anyone would want to do something like hacking a human brain, experts already have the answer. They reveal that PCs have been used recently with the sole purpose of causing neurological harm. In 2007 and in 2008, some malicious programmers managed to vandalize epilepsy support websites by inserting flashing animations, which affected many photo-sensitive patients, causing seizures.
If a person can do this knowing fully well that the site is dedicated to patients and how it would affect and harm them, what is to stop them from going further into the human brain tomorrow? Malicious people have no qualms and would go to any extent to harm others to derive some sort of sadistic pleasure.
According to a computer science graduate student, “It happened on two separate occasions. It’s evidence that people will be malicious and try to compromise people’s health using computers, especially if neural devices become more widespread.”
In fact, experts are not ruling out the possibility of this being done by the patients themselves, by hacking into their own neural devices. By hacking into these devices, patients will be able to “self-prescribe” pain relief by increasing the activity of the brain’s reward centers. When one is suffering and there is a possibility to end that pain, patients have been seen to go to any extent to seek relief.
Earlier, we memorized passwords to avoid storing them on our computers, lest they be hacked. What do we do now?