GeekWire Radio: Brain-computer interfaces and the future of personal privacy

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Brain-Computer interfacing
Early prototypes might look unappealing, but researchers say brain-computer interfaces will become mainstream. (Sybren Stüvel photo via Flickr, Creative Commons.)

The past couple of years have brought a series of revelations about the lack of privacy online — all the ways that companies and the government can use our activity on the Internet and mobile devices to collect and capitalize on personal details about our lives.

Howard Chizeck, UW electrical engineering professor

So what happens when we start hooking our brains up to these devices?

That’s our topic on the GeekWire radio show and podcast this week, and it’s the focus of our two guests, who are conducting research into the privacy implications of brain-computer interfaces. We’re joined in the studio by Howard Chizeck, professor of electrical engineering at the University of Washington, and UW graduate student Tamara Bonaci.

[Listen via this MP3 file or using the audio player below.]

Brain-computer interfaces refer to the use of sensors to detect neuro-signals from the brain. These signals can be used to help people control games, computer programs, prosthetics or devices. (Chizeck notes that there have already been two NeuroGaming conferences). But they can also be used to detect a person’s reaction to something flashed (perhaps even subliminally) on the screen.

The UW researchers are investigating ways to preserve personal privacy as this new world emerges.

Tamara Bonaci
Tamara Bonaci, UW graduate student in electrical engineering

“You could see that a game would be just the ideal way to collect information, and if it was tied into, say, a large Internet marketing company or search engine company, they could very quickly learn brand preference and send you targeted advertisements,” explains Chizeck. “This is the kind of privacy that we’re concerned about protecting.”

He continues, “What it comes down to is we need to make sure that the information that goes out of your head, to the outside world, is sanitized. You want to never store, and never transmit compromising information. And that’s the core of what we’re doing.”

As I tell Chizeck during the show, that sounds impossible! Even today, marketers and the government know so much about us just based on our web browsing, without the benefit of electrodes on our brains.

“I think we can make a long set of steps towards it,” he responds. “The first thing you need is something like an app store that certifies that the program you’re running is not trying to steal your information. The second thing you do is you actually have hardware and software in your device that extracts just the information the game needs, and doesn’t allow the other response information to go through.”

And then finally, there needs to be an industry standard and certification so that user know when they’re getting a safe game, app or device.

The conversation with Chizeck and Bonaci begins in the second segment of the show, at 9:15, after our weekly news roundup, in which we discuss topics including Facebook’s “emotional contagion” study, and the shocking news that blowing on your Nintendo cartridges back in the day actually did nothing.

Listen to the full show using the audio player below, or via this MP3 file.

App of the Week: SnapUp, a new app for iPhone that helps you track prices by taking screenshots of your favorite products inside shopping apps.

Name that Tech Tune: Do you know the movie associated with this song? Here’s the big hint: A critical moment in this movie depended on a computer virus. Send your answer to [email protected] for a chance to win a pair of tickets to GeekWire Sounders Day, Aug. 20.

In the final segment of this podcast version of the show, GeekWire’s Taylor Soper and I discuss more of the week’s news, including his visit to the Cannabis Tech Meetup.

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