Privacy SOS

Warning: slow down, technophiles, and look around you

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Emory University researchers want to know: what do dogs think? They are using advanced fMRI technology to find out. Watch the video above to see how far they have gotten in their quest to understand Fido. Does he really love us, or is he just hungry?

Scientists are using advanced technologies to get them closer and closer to mind reading — and they are peering into human brains, too.

Researchers are also working on a variety of projects that break down barriers between human and machine by implanting computer technology into the brain. Work on so-called human machine interface technologies is rapidly progressing, thanks in large part to heaps of cash from the military's far-out research arm, DARPA.

In the video below, a paralyzed woman with a computer chip in her brain is able to use her mind to guide a robotic arm. Reactions to the video on the internet can mostly be summed up like this: "Whoa! That's so cool!"

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Pretty wild stuff, right?

There's more. Mind-controlled robotic arms are just the beginning of the cyborg revolution. The man in the video below lost his eye in a shooting accident was he was nine years old and always dreamed of getting a robotic eye. Now he has one. The technology is rather rudimentary; it is basically just a tiny video camera that wirelessly transmits what he "sees" to other devices, like handheld gadgets or television screens. 

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But there's another kind of cyborg eye that really pushes the boundaries.

DARPA is funding research at Washington-based Innovega iOptiks, where scientists are working to develop contact lenses that "enhance normal vision by allowing a wearer to view virtual and augmented reality images without the need for bulky apparatus." In other words, the contact lenses bring the internet into your brain, allowing you to "see" the world wide web. In your head. (Sort of puts Google's internet glasses to shame, doesn't it?)

It's not a stretch of the imagination to think that in twenty years, a police officer will be looking at your complete dossier — in his head — after his augmented reality contact lens uses face recognition technology to identify you on the street.

Reality bites

A healthy dose of skepticism about all of these tools is sorely needed. While the technology evangelized in the prosthesis video above undoubtedly provides a welcome fix for people with mobility limitations, it also opens up a Pandora's box unlike any our species has ever encountered. While the benefits of such technologies are obvious, the possibilities for abuse they pose are endless.

The computer chip in her brain that lets her control elements outside her body could also be turned against her, to control her movements, thoughts or bodily function. It could be used to read her mind, or even kill her — wirelessly and from miles away. It's worrisome enough to imagine the police or military getting access to the chip in your brain, but what about hackers? 

Some people will dismiss such warnings as so much tinfoil hat paranoia. But the a sober review of the facts tells a different story.

If we lived in a country run by people concerned about personal privacy, we wouldn't need to raise the alarm about these revolutionary technologies. But when Congress won't force police to get a warrant before reading our emails or tracking us via GPS, can you imagine it restricting the military or FBI's access to these kinds of tools? There's not much separating a Congress that will allow vacuum style digital surveillance from one that will tacitly approve of the government literally getting inside your head.

The military is paying for the research to develop these tools, so who do you think is going to dominate the market when they are more advanced and ready for wide-ranging, commercial application?

Doomed to repeat it

Once upon a time, Alfred Nobel thought that his revolutionary invention, dynamite, would end war as humankind knew it: 

My factories may make an end of war sooner than your congresses. The day when two army corps can annihilate each other in one second, all civilized nations, it is to be hoped, will recoil from war and discharge their troops.

We know how that turned out.

Unbridled, uncritical optimism about technologies that blur the lines between human and computer are dangerous precisely because history shows that if police and the military can use technology to destroy our privacy and physically harm people, they will. To realize this and act accordingly isn't knee jerk reaction or crazy talk; it's well founded, historically grounded caution. 

We need to see lots more caution with respect to these groundbreaking technologies and their likely impacts, before it's too late.

© 2023 ACLU of Massachusetts.