Privacy SOS

Tufts researchers working on mind reading headband

Researchers at Tufts University are working on developing a headband that reads your mind. The engineers acknowledge that privacy is a concern, but suggest that mind reading headbands are just like any other tool, in that they can be used for good or bad.

What good could come from such a device? I'm not convinced, but here's what researchers told WBUR:

Basically, the devices could make you a more productive member of the capitalist system. “What we’ve been best at measuring so far is mental workload or cognitive workload,” said one researcher. “If we find out that your workload is going up or going down, we could tweak the computer a little bit to suit your current state.” He gives the example of an air-traffic controller: if such a worker were overburdened by too many tasks at once, the headband would detect this and notify his superiors that he needed a breather. I guess old fashioned verbal communication doesn't suffice?

Another possible application also has to do with workflow, but applies more to the knowledge worker. From WBUR:

“If we interrupt you when you’re very busy, it’s really disruptive and people have shown that your stress levels go up,” says Evan Peck, a Ph.D candidate at the [Tufts] Human-Computer Interaction Lab. “You get more anxious, in addition to you actually doing worse at whatever you’re doing.”

But put on the headband — which tells the computer how hard your brain is working — and it can actually pick the best time to interrupt you with an email or a phone call.

“If we can actually tell how hard your brain is working, we might be able to figure out the right moment to interrupt you,” says Peck.

In other words, if someone’s trying to call you on my cell phone, you won’t actually be alerted unless you’re in a state to receive it.

“It also depends on who’s calling you,” says Peck.” “My wife calling me is very different from…” Your girlfriend, for example.

Apparently we can't make decisions about when to answer or ignore phone calls? I'm still not convinced.

You think you have no privacy now? I know what you're thinking…

How long before some internet company is trying to sell one of these devices to you, or before your employer forces you to wear one as a condition of employment? That day is probably approaching must faster than any of us can anticipate. And it's not likely going to come in the form of a dorky headband.

“We can definitely see a path where you won’t need this very expensive elaborate instrument,” one of the scientists told WBUR. “All it does is shine light into your head and measure the light coming back out. You could do that with a much more compact cheaper thing someday. We’re working on a way to integrate this with Google Glass or a baseball hat or something.”

Mind reading integrated with Google Glass? Sounds like a perfectly dystopian nightmare. You thought Google knew you well before. Just wait until it can literally read your mind.

It's an axiom in the privacy community that technology progresses far faster than law meant to regulate its privacy implications. We still haven't passed basic reforms to communications privacy law that would protect our emails with a warrant requirement. Methinks we are not ready for a world in which Google, the FBI, and maybe even your local police department can read your mind.

People say we have no privacy left today, but that's clearly not true. No one knows what you're thinking right now as you read this. Cherish that. It might not always be true.

© 2018 ACLU of Massachusetts.